Writing by Patrick Keddie
It was an unprecedented assault. Starting on Sunday and lasting throughout the night, unknown assailants besieged St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo; hurling petrol bombs and stones over the walls. The police stood and watched, or took their turn in the assault by firing volleys of tear gas into the cathedral’s grounds. Men brandished handguns and scaled nearby buildings to fire into the compound. Stones and debris were hurled back at those outside the cathedral’s walls.
By the end of the assault on Monday morning, one person was confirmed dead and scores were injured. The attack on the cathedral began after the mass funeral of four copts who were killed last week in sectarian clashes in Khousous, roughly 10 miles north of Cairo, in which a Muslim man also died. After the funeral on Sunday, witnesses claimed that highly charged mourners went out into the streets chanting anti-government slogans. Armed protesters were waiting for them. Violence broke out and quickly escalated, leaving hundreds trapped in the cathedral and facing an onslaught that lasted all night.
Yet, alongside the growing sectarianism in Egypt, there is also solidarity between the faiths from many who are appalled at the violence.
Hours after the attack had ended the atmosphere in the streets around the cathedral remained tense. The sting of the previous night’s teargas lingered in the air, mingling with the Cairene dust. Around noon on Monday a crowd of dozens – Christian and Muslim – gathered to protest against the attack; chanting together in condemnation of the violence and against President Mohammed Morsi, long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom many hold responsible for the worsening sectarianism.
Some protesters berated the police who were massed in side streets opposite the cathedral, as others urged restraint. Police officers gazed through the metal grilles of several vans. As tensions rose and the crowd grew, the police, their legs blurred by riot shields, formed lines blocking the main road.
Bashwi Fayez, 18, was in the crowd. He is a Christian. “Christians and Muslims are one hand; they are on the same team” he told me, “But the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], they are separate – another side.”
A slender middle-aged man, who gave his name as ‘Rahim’, wanted to tell me that “I would be here if it was Al-Azhar [mosque] or St Mark’s. These are holy places that should not be targeted.”
Atif Zaki was protesting to express his fear about sectarianism. “There is no governance right now in Egypt, no responsible politics” he told me “The mood is against Christians.”
“Coptic Christians across Egypt face discrimination in law and practice and have been victims of regular sectarian attacks while authorities systematically look the other way,” reported Amnesty International recently.
Christians make up around 15% of the Egyptian population and the vast majority of Egyptian Christians are Coptic Orthodox. There was sectarian violence during Mubarak’s era but the situation has deteriorated further since the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of inflaming sectarian tension and of implementing a new constitution that fails to protect minority rights. Christians are leaving the country in increasingly high numbers.
Inside St Mark’s barricades
The cathedral is protected by formidable, fortress-like walls, several metres high. At the front of the building parts of the wall are crowned with spikes. The metal gates were strongly bolted. Men armed with stones were visible in the cathedral’s bell-towers and people defending the building had occupied the roof of the petrol station adjacent to the cathedral and along the compound’s high walls.
Outside the cathedral, a small outlying building had been trashed; its windows smashed and rooms ransacked. The husks of burnt-out cars lay in the surrounding streets. Inside the compound a still smouldering log lay on the ground and scorched debris had been swept into piles, yet there was little sign of significant damage to the buildings.
The mood inside was generally calm and good-humoured – although tensions broke out over opening the gates, outside which several people had massed, wanting to be let in. A priest lost his temper with men gathered on the walls and shouted “These guys are spies! Agents! They threw a rock at me when I told them to get down.” Many people thought they would inflame the situation.
“They are looking for a fight” opined Beshoy Tamry, a 25 year-old student. He thought that they had stones and petrol bombs at the ready to defend the cathedral but denied they would have guns.
Tamry had spent almost 24 hours in the complex. He thought that the previous night’s assailants were a mixture of “thugs and police working together. They were very coordinated” he claimed, “Policemen were directing the thugs around the cathedral to spread the attacks.”
For Tamry, this was a bleak moment for Christians in Egypt. “This is the first time the regime attacked the cathedral” said Tamry, “it is everything for Copts – it is our White House.”
St Mark’s cathedral, in the Abbasiya district of north Cairo, is the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The cathedral was inaugurated in 1968, although the church has owned the land since 969. The church itself is an imposing mixture of Modernist and Orthodox Christian styles and houses relics of St Mark, who was the first person to preach Christianity in Egypt and is considered the founding figure of the Coptic Church.
Inside the cathedral’s grounds I met Shero Badr, a 30 year old theatre director. She was wearing silver eye-shadow and a headscarf. She is a Muslim and she had come to express her solidarity. “I am here to support them” she said, “the Christians are my brothers.” She claimed there were many Muslims in the cathedral overnight, in solidarity with the Christians.
For her the problem was political, not religious, and she had nothing but vitriol for the Muslim Brotherhood, who she blamed for facilitating the violence. “They don’t represent Muslims, they represent themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood are not us” she said.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, has released statements strongly condemning the attacks. Mohammed Morsi also released a statement, saying that it was the state’s responsibility to protect the lives of Muslims and Christians, adding “I consider any attack on the cathedral as an attack on me, personally.”
Michel William is a Christian doctor, he declined to give his exact age; “Hmmm, I’m over 60” he mused. He had come to the cathedral to offer his support in case clashes broke out again. He dismissed Morsi’s comments out of hand. “We shouldn’t judge anyone by words, only by actions” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood use religion as a cover – they don’t follow the religion’s rules. They want power. They want to get their hands on everything; political, economic, social.”
Despite the scale of the violence, William was defiant. “We are never afraid. We don’t fear death, death fears us!” he told me. But he was also an optimist. “I have many Muslim patients – they are very good people. The majority of Egyptians like each other. The problem is the minority who want to get their hands on everything. This is a very good country; we can’t leave our treasures here, we won’t leave.”