Archive - February 17, 2015

The beheading is only the tip
Another bloody chapter in the story of Egyptian Copts

The beheading is only the tip

The beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya has stirred widespread international condemnation, yet this can neither be interpreted as a separate incident of ISIS’ brutality nor can it be seen exclusively in geo-political terms as a political manoeuvre in a power struggle between regional actors. This is part of a broader political project of cleansing the Middle East of its religious minorities in Muslim majority contexts, a project whose orchestrators are a dense network of actors of whom ISIS is only one player, and an outreach whose boundaries stretch well beyond Libya.

Islamist targeting of Christians in Libya since 2012

While ISIS has claimed responsibility for the beheading of the 21 Copts, in effect, the targeting of Copts is part of a more systematic targeting of Christians in Libya since 2012 which corresponds to the rise of Islamist militant groups taking over of large parts of the country. The assault on civil liberties by the militant Islamist groups has affected large populations, but Christians are specifically targeted on religious grounds associated with an ideology that sees them as infidels.

While there is a small indigenous Christian community who has lived there for hundreds of years, a small congregation of Catholics and a number of Protestant churches, the great majority of Christians in Libya are Coptic Orthodox Christians (estimated to be around 300,000) who came from neighboring Egypt in search of work or any kind of livelihood. During Gaddafi’s tenure, Coptic Christians established their own churches in Libya, worshipped without major inhibitions, and enjoyed relations with the majority Muslim Libyan population that were by and large convivial and harmonious. Many middle class families went to Libya in search of better economic opportunities, settled there, and used to visit Egypt every so often. The bulk of the Christian residents, however, are young men from poor, rural communities situated in some of the most deprived and excluded parts of Upper Egypt. They have crossed the borders to Libya in search of any employment they could find: as day laborers for the land-owning Libyans, as street vendors in the local markets, or any other job they could scavenge to save a little money and send to their families back home. They have been systematically targeted by various militant groups in Libya, including the Battalion of Ansar Al Shariah, Al Nusra and a cocktail of jihadi groups.

Though there is widespread chaos in Libya and terrorist attacks have spared no one, the assaults on Christians since December 2012 have been systematic. Churches have been burnt, ransoms imposed, and individuals tortured and killed. Christians would be recognized by the tattoo of a cross imprinted on their wrist or arm. In other incidents, Muslim local informants would relay to Islamist groups the names and addresses of Christians in their community, and individuals acting on economic predatory grounds would report where Christians were to Islamist groups in return for a reward.

Why did the Christians not return to Egypt in view of these alarm bells? Some were actually captured on their way back to Egypt, fleeing Libya. Others thought that if they went into hiding, they would be safer, while still others waited for the situation to calm down, knowing they had no alternative source of livelihood to go to back home to.

Large scale kidnappings, selective killings

Since October 2013 up to the present, there have been 1,125 incidents of Egyptians being kidnapped in Libya. The majority are poor, marginalized young people in search of a livelihood. Of the 1, 125 kidnapped, none of the Muslim men were killed and were all released. Of the Christians captured, all have been killed. (though there may be more who were taken hostages, the whereabouts of which are unknown, and undocumented in the media). This cross-comparison of the predicament of the Egyptians who were captured suggests that there is a pre-orchestrated plan of eliminating those who happen to be Copts on grounds of religion.

The killing of the Copts and the release of the others is only explained by the will of the assailants. The BBC, for example, reports that eyewitness accounts in one incident of kidnapping involved an armed group dashing into a house full of Egyptian workers, asking whether there were any Christians there, seizing them, and leaving the rest.


Beyond Libya: Islamists’ systematic targeting of religious minorities in the Middle East

The cleansing of Libya of its Christian population is part of a broader political project of political Islamist groups to rid the world of religious pluralism. Again, it cannot be reiterated enough that this political project seeks to redraw the profile of its political community in a way that is exclusionary of women, artists, human rights activists, those who interpret/practice the faith differently, and the list goes on.

However, there is a striking similarity in the Islamists’ modalities of targeting religious minorities across the borders, whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya or other parts of the region.

The targeting relies on the collaboration of various Islamist networks on scanning the horizons for where Christians live and work. It also relies on local informants sharing the profile of families in great detail and often (though not always) benefitting economically from such transactions. The targeting involves Islamist militants’ enforcement of a ransom in return for securing the right to live; kidnappings targeting Christians in Iraq, which have been happening since the American Occupation of Iraq; and the disintegration of the Iraqi state into sectarian silos. What ISIS brought to Iraq and Syria, however, is a form of religious cleansing of an intensity and scale that has prompted Amnesty International to attest that fresh evidence it uncovered “indicates that members of the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) have launched a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq, carrying out war crimes, including mass summary killings and abductions, against ethnic and religious minorities.”

A recently released UN report produced by the U.N. body responsible for reviewing Iraq’s record for the first time since 1998 denounced “the systematic killing of children belonging to religious and ethnic minorities by the so-called ISIL, including several cases of mass executions of boys, as well as reports of beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive.”

There are communities now facing an existential threat.  We recognize that this political project is neither encapsulated in ISIS nor contained in the Libyan boundaries because the beheading is only the tip.

Another bloody chapter in the story of Egyptian Copts

The Egyptian army launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya hours after the release of a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts kidnapped by Libyan Islamists in December 2014 and January 2015. One may be tempted to say that President Sisi’s response to these murders is comparable to King Abdullah’s after a Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, was burned to death by ISIS. However, a closer examination of both leaders’ reactions shows a number of significant differences.

The Egyptian government’s reaction to the kidnappings was barely noticeable until last week. Official responses only became tangible after ISIS published the photos of the kidnapped Egyptians being paraded in jumpsuits. Indeed, ​it is hard not to be cynical in observing that it was only after these photos were heavily circulated in the media that the Egyptian government decided to show some support. Was this a strategic silence meant to protect the identities—hence the lives—of the abducted Egyptians, as claimed by some government officials? Hardly so, given that the names and photos of the kidnapped Egyptians emerged in the media shortly after their abduction. On the other hand, the Jordanian authorities frantically tried to secure the release of the Jordanian pilot since his capture by ISIS in December 2014. Until the video of his killing was released in February 3, the Jordanian government was engaged in a back-and-forth exercise of indirect talks with ISIS through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq to secure the release of al-Kasasbeh, offering to swap him for an Islamist jihadist imprisoned by Jordan.

In his article published in Mada Masr, Mohamed Mohie explains how the Egyptian government’s response (or lack thereof) since news of the kidnapping emerged is inappropriate. Relatives of the murdered Egyptians stated they have repeatedly tried to get in touch with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but​ to no avail. As for the thousands of Egyptian workers who are still in Libya, it was only on Thursday February 12 that President Sisi ordered their speedy evacuation. His announcement came weeks after reports emerged of Egyptian Christians in Libya being secretly smuggled back to Egypt in fear of being kidnapped by Islamists while their government, next door, watched silently.

The Egyptian government was not taken by surprise. It was actually quite the opposite given that Egyptian Christians have been systematically targeted in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi. Ishak Ibrahim gives a detailed account of the violence perpetrated against Egyptian Copts in Libya since 2012:

These incidents are not the first religious motivated attacks targeting Egyptian Christians in Libya since the beginning of the Libyan uprising and the overthrow of former president Muammar al-Qaddafi. Numerous attacks have had clear religious motives. Some of the most noteworthy attacks include: the bombing of Saint Mary Church in Misrata in December 2012, which killed two Copts and injured several others, and the explosion at Saint Markus Church in Benghazi in March 2013. In that same month, Libya’s Preventive Security Forces tortured to death an Egyptian Copt, Ezzat al-Hakim, for his missionary work. Additionally, in early March 2013, 55 Egyptians were captured and although 35 were returned to Egypt two weeks later, the rest remained in Libya. Four, who were accused of proselytizing, remain in capture. The Coptic priest Father Isaac Paul was also beaten, shaved, and humiliated before returning to Egypt.

In 2014, a total of 14 Egyptian Copts were killed in Libya. On February 23, 2014, after militants raided a building where Christians resided with a group of Egyptian Muslims in Benghazi, 7 Copts from Sohag governorate were kidnapped and gunned down near one of the city’s beaches. In March, two Egyptian Coptic vegetable sellers from Samalout—Salama Fawzi and Gad Abdeul al-Maseh—were shot and killed by gunmen in the town of Beni Ghazi and in the city of Benghazi, respectively.

On August 25, militants also kidnapped four Egyptians from Assiout on their way back to Egypt from Tripoli. The gunmen forcefully stopped the car transporting the victims, took them hostage and let the rest go. There is still no information on their whereabouts to this day. On September 18, militants in Benghazi gunned down another Egyptian Copt named Ishak Sha’aban, from the Minya governorate town of Samalout. Paul Samir, an Egyptian Copt from the village of Deir Gabal al-Tair in Minya governorate, was killed on his way back to Egypt from Benghazi where he worked.

Militants also stormed the house of Coptic physician Magdy Tawfiq on December 23, 2014 in the city of Sirte in Libya. Assailants killed the physician and his wife, and kidnapped their oldest daughter, whose body was found in a nearby area a few days later.

Emblematic and symbolic images weigh heavily on the national psych. While King Abdullah went in person to the village of pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh to offer his condolences to the devastated family, President Sisi deemed it satisfactory to visit St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo and to offer his condolences to Pope Tawadros II instead of reaching out directly to the grieving families. One may indeed question the ​purpose of such a visit given that none of the victims were actually from Cairo but from the governorate of Minya, some 140 miles south of Cairo. The equivalent from the Jordanian side would be if King Abdullah had visited the biggest Mosque in Amman in the absence of Moaz’s family instead of going to the pilot’s village and offering his condolences in person to Moaz’s family.

Finally, many Coptic activists are also wondering why is it that the government is concerned about Egyptian Copts killed in Libya when it does not seem to worry much about those killed in Egypt. Some are sarcastically expressing their discontent with the government’s reaction, saying that the seven days of national mourning merely means the projection of a small black ribbon on the corner of television screens.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.