Christians in Egypt are used to persecution, but this week’s deadly attacks on a Copt demonstration threaten the country’s move from military rule to democracy.
In the 19 or so centuries since Christianity first took root in Egypt, the ritual of mourning has become an all-too-familiar experience for the majority of the country’s Coptic community. Egypt’s eight million Copts may claim to be their nation’s oldest surviving indigenous faith, but that has not spared them from prolonged periods of persecution, most recently at the hands of Islamist militants.
In many respects, the tone was set for nearly two millennia of oppression of the Copts, one of the world’s oldest Christian sects, by the martyrdom of St Mark the Evangelist, the disciple who established the Christian faith in Alexandria just a few years after the ascension of Christ.
The establishment of a new religion was bitterly resented by the city’s pagan population, who feared it would turn Alexandrians away from the worship of their traditional gods. They exacted their revenge on Easter Monday in 68 AD when Roman soldiers put a rope around St Mark’s neck and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria until he was dead.
These days the methods used to persecute Egypt’s Copts might not be so primitive, but their overall effect is no less barbaric. During the latest outbreak of Coptic-related violence in Cairo on Sunday night, several Copts are reported to have been crushed to death by the tracks of an armoured military vehicle that ploughed into a group of protesters as they sang hymns and held aloft the Cross.
The roots of the current wave of anti-Coptic violence are murky. At first it was assumed that Islamist militants, who have waged a vicious campaign of intimidation, sparked the unrest by burning down a church in the southern province of Aswan. This attack was the latest in a series of clashes between Muslims and Christians, which began when 21 worshippers were killed as they left mass at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.