Saturday, 1 January 2011
Egyptians welcome the new year, 2011, with a massacre of unprecedented political and social significance. Following a year of tense relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, Egyptians bid 2010 farewell less than half an hour before a deadly attack targeted a congested Coptic Orthodox al-Qiddissin Church in the Sidi Bishr neighbourhood of Egypt's second-largest city, Alexandria [map].
The car exploded in front of the church as worshippers emerged from a New Year's Mass (source)
The attack sums up a year which characterised by tensions between the Church and the Muslim community over allegations of extra-legally imprisoning and torturing converts to Islam and, recently, an Al-Qaida threat against the Coptic Church. I, referred to the heightened tensions between Copts and Muslims in Egypt amidst political turmoil at this critical phase of Egyptian history as 'the bagamisation' of society. I first used this expression jokingly, but eventually it became a token of my anger and frustration at the prevalent state of affairs: a situation in which Egyptians are driven and kettled into primordial ties and enchained by unbreakable bonds of fear and loyalty at risk of 'excommunication'. As a result, an Egyptian is bogged down into stupidity, meaningless conflicts aggravated, and attention diverted from the imminent questions of democracy, political reform and social justice.
Blood splattered the facade of the church, a painting of Jesus inside, and a mosque across the street
(more photos of the attack and the clashes that followed can be found here)
A rare and amateur video released hours ago shows the congregation in the Coptic midnight mass inside the al-Qiddissin Church of Saints Mark and Peter when the unexpected struck: a car bomb exploded outside the church killing 21 people as worshippers hurried outside the church. The incident sparked violent sectarian clashes between angry Christians and the neighbourhood's Muslims as well as between Christian mobs and anti-riot police almost immediately after the attack.
Footage courtesy the al-Qiddissin Church
An eyewitness quoted by a number of online and print forums said he saw two men leave the car and head for the charitable hospital across the street from the church before the car exploded destroying the facade of the church. According to Michel Nasr, the car bore the phrase "and the rest will come" on the back. According to Nasr, who also spoke to the state-owned Nile News TV as well as a number of Coptic diaspora satellite channels, angry Christian mobs attacked Muslims in retaliation immediately after the attack causing a number of casualties before tens of anti-riot police trucks arrived and highways leading in and out of the 4-million-person city were shut down by state security police.
Despite attempts to reveal the circumstances of the tragic event which comes at an acute political stage in Egyptian political life as well as heightened sectarian tensions, the Egyptian government refuses to reveal any information to the public and has restricted journalists' access to information leaving a large vacuum which unverified testimonies and speculation have readily filled.
Another eyewitness, Mina Sami, narrates the incident
According to another eye witness, Mina Sami (the video above), the attack against the church was in fact threefold: according to Mina, after the first car bomb exploded between 00:30 and 00:45 CLT, the clergymen directed the worshipers out of the church using the back doors fearing the main entrance may be too dangerous for a mass evacuation. Mina claims that upon exit from the back doors however, another car bomb exploded. The episode was repeated a third time when worshippers were directed to a small emergency exit on El-Essawi Street.
According to his testimony, the attack also involved a dozen or so vandals penetrating the crowds and vandalising the computer rooms, archives and stained glass facade of the church as worshippers hurried out of the church. The vandals, Mina asserts, were arrested by angry Christians who presented them to the Priest of the al-Qiddissin Church who checked their IDs and determined they were in fact Muslim men before handing them over to state security. State security have made no statement and nothing has been heard of the alleged vandals so far.
As usual in cases deemed "sensitive" and of "particular importance to state security", the Egyptian government continues to provide the public and the media with little or no information and operates its usual heavy-handed policing policies. The lack of information has left public opinion informed only through unverified testimonies, rumors and speculation.
Egypt's Coptic community is due to celebrate Christmas on Friday, January 7 according to the Coptic or Alexandrian calendar which will probably be accompanied by a show of force by the police including intense security measures around churches and public places and might involve a number of arbitrary arrests aimed at reassuring the Coptic community, appeasing the Church and diffusing vengeance.
The attack on parishioners at Our Lady of Salvation in Iraq in October 2010 has led to worldwide condemnation and featured highly in Christmas prayers and papal/patriarchal speeches this year.
The attack is expected to be the work of Al-Qaida-related groups. Al-Qaeda vowed revenge against Egypt's Coptic Church amidst popular allegations that the Church is holding a number of converts captive in remote monasteries. Al-Qaida launched a deadly attack against worshippers in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq [photos]. Al-Qaida sources said the attack is only a warning to Egypt's Coptic Church that "it too will be targeted" in retaliation for "holding Muslim sisters in captivity and forcing them to denounce Islam and convert back to Christianity."
The Egyptian Coptic Church has raised great concern and caused immense anger and sectarian strife in the past two years following the mysterious disappearance of a number of women (especially wives of priests) who allegedly converted to Islam. The church was almost immediately accused of imprisoning the converts in its remote desert monasteries in an attempt to force them to convert back to Christianity. Although none of these allegations are substantiated, Al-Azhar records and the threatening intonation of the Coptic Church's top clergymen have left little room for doubt.