Yusuf Lama’a never saw his murderer approach. Lama’a, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community in Alexandria, was smoking a sheesha (or hookah pipe) the night of January 3rd. The Mediterranean Sea, a few blocks away, cooled the evening air. Surveillance footage captured what happened next. As Lama’a enjoyed his smoke, a man in a green jacket approached and stabbed him twice in the throat. Lama'a dropped his pipe and stumbled off the street.
Lama’a died from injuries sustained in the attack, but the surveillance footage helped Egyptian authorities arrest his killer. As is increasingly the case in Egypt, police deny the attack was religiously motivated, saying the two men had a business dispute, but others disagree.
“After he was killed, some Egyptians on social media stressed the fact he was a Copt selling alcohol - as if in some way he provoked the attack,” said Mina Rizkallah Abdelmalak, a Coptic activist in Washington, D.C. “What is even more surprising is that Egyptian authorities will often deny sectarian attacks take place;. This trend has continued under the rule of President Sissi.”
The plight of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians has deteriorated markedly since the June 30, 2013 coup in Egypt that brought General Abdel Sissi to power. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, a number of Egyptian churches were ransacked by angry supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egypt's military government failed to stop the violence but, promised to help rebuild the ransacked churches. Nearly four years later many properties remained damaged.
The murder of Lama'a in Alexandria comes on the heels of an even more violent attack against the Coptic community.
A terrorist bombing of Cairo's El Botroseya Church on December 11th killed 27 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The Gatestone Institute called the attack the worst terrorist attack on a church in Egyptian history. Eyewitnesses to the bomb attack and its aftermath claimed the Egyptian emergency forces were slow to respond.
“When incidents involving Copts happen, the police and ambulances are often slow to arrive, but it is unclear if this is the result of sectarian bias, the lack of professionalism among Egypt’s emergency services or some mix of the two,” Abdelmalak said. "The military and government should work to increase security,”
Too often, he said, attacks against Copts go unpunished or are investigated with only minimal resources.
While invasion and civil war in Iraq and Syria have significantly reduced the number of Christians in those countries, Egypt’s Christian community remains vibrant. Christians make up 10% of the Egyptian population. The 10 million strong Egyptian Christian population is the largest in the Middle East. Most of Egypt's Christians are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was part of the Egyptian Church until 1959. Elsewhere in Africa, the Coptic Orthodox Church continues to grow being spread by Egyptian expatriates.
The relationship between the Egyptian military and its Coptic community has often been tense.
The Egyptian military suppressed a Coptic protest in downtown Cairo that killed 28 in October 2011. President Sissi has worked to improve public relations between Egypt’s Copts and the government. He became the first Egyptian President to attend a Coptic Christmas service in 2015. The recent attacks on Egypt's Christians come as President Sissi seeks to rebuild U.S.-Egyptian ties. Sissi was one of two foreign leaders to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump during his election campaign. Sissi was also the first foreign leader to call and congratulate Trump following his presidential election victory.
A recent Human Rights Watch statement on the Coptic community noted that the Sissi government has “failed to protect Coptic Christians from violent attacks and instead enforced 'reconciliation' sessions with their Muslim neighbors that deprive them of their rights and allow attackers to evade justice. In some cases, Christians were obliged to leave their homes, villages or towns.”
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has documented 77 religious based attacks on Copts during the last five years in the province of Minya. They include an incident last May in which hundreds of Muslim rioters set fire to Christian homes after rumors circulated of an inter-sectarian romantic relationship. Minya has one of the largest populations of Christians in the country and is located 150 miles south of Cairo.
“Some of the worst incidents against Christians occur in Upper Egypt, the rural areas far from Alexandria and Cairo which don’t get as much international attention,” said Ahmed Naguib, a human rights activist. “It’s in these areas where the government uses reconciliation where it should instead punish those responsible for crimes against Christians.”