Christians in Egypt called for increased security following the killing of a priest in a knife attack in Cairo, with some people suggesting that priests be armed.
The Reverend Samaan Shehata, a priest from the central province of Beni Suef, was stabbed to death October 12 while visiting Cairo. Authorities said the assailant was “mentally disturbed.”
Shehata’s death is the latest in a series of attacks against Egypt’s Christians and prompted renewed calls for them to take their safety and security into their own hands.
“There is shock and fear everywhere among the Christians after the cowardly murder of Father Samaan,” said Bishop Refail al- Hakim, who oversees a group of churches in Cairo. “The incident reveals the enormity of the threats facing the Christian minority in this country.”
Egypt’s Christian minority, approximately 10% of the population of 94 million, has been the target of many attacks in recent years. In addition to the occasional flare-up of sectarian tensions with Muslims, Christians have been the prime target of attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, who have a stronghold in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Observers said Christians were being targeted, not only by ISIS, but by militant groups such as Hasm, a radical militia with ties to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, owing to Christians’ strong backing from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“Repeated attacks against the Christians aim primarily to sow the seeds of tension between them on one hand and the government and their Muslim compatriots on the other,” said retired police General Mamdouh al-Kidwani. “The terrorists hope that Christians’ growing feeling of insecurity will make them turn against President Sisi.”
This is unlikely given the many measures Sisi has endorsed to protect Egyptian churches, including deploying increased security outside them.
Egypt’s churches have recruited volunteers to provide additional security, with a new programme to give church volunteers police training on how to carry out searches receiving government endorsement.
Increased security outside churches does not stop individual priests being attacked, however, and Shehata’s death prompted calls on social media for priests to be given weapons.
“Priests should be armed,” said one Christian activist on Facebook. “Everybody has the right to defend themselves, even priests.”
Coptic Pope Tawadros II dismissed proposals for priests to be issued weapons licences. “This is completely rejected and is not even worthy of debate,” he said. “It is completely forbidden for priests to carry arms, no matter what.”
Shehata was shopping in Cairo’s northern al-Marg district when he was killed, said another priest, Beymen Moftah, who was with him at the time of the attack.
“The attacker targeted Father Samaan only because he was Christian,” Moftah was quoted as telling investigators.
Egyptian authorities have sought to play down the incident with claims that the attacker was “mentally disturbed” but Christians are wary, having seen similar attacks — and similar responses from the authorities — in the past.
Kidwani said the incident was a new challenge for security forces. “The fact is that the security establishment cannot secure every single priest or Christian,” he said.
He rejected calls for priests to be allowed to carry arms to defend themselves, saying this would exacerbate the problem. “Army troops and policemen are killed in Sinai and in other areas, even as they carry arms,” Kidwani said.
The Reverend Polis Halim, the official spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, suggested a comprehensive approach to attacks against Christians. “The priests are not supposed to carry arms either because arms should only be in the hands of the state,” Halim said. “If priests are allowed to carry arms, mosque imams and sheikhs will be justified in demanding the same thing for themselves.”
He called for a cultural, legal and security campaign to ensure the safety of Egypt’s Christians, saying people need to be taught that those who follow a different faith are not enemies or infidels but pray to the same God, albeit in a different manner.
“There must be laws that inflict heavy punishment on those who attack others only because they believe in a different religion,” Halim said. “Our society really needs to wake up and learn tolerance before it is too late.”
Ahmed Meghid is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.