Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reportedly issued a decree over the weekend to create a panel to fight “sectarian incidents” in the wake of a wave of Islamic extremist attacks targeting the country’s Christian minority this year.
Sisi’s decision is expected to take effect Monday, ahead of the Coptic Christian Christmas celebrations on January 7.
Citing Egypt’s state-run gazette on Sunday, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported that ex-Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, Sisi’s security and counterterrorism advisor, will chair the committee.
“The new committee, tasked with ‘developing a general strategy to prevent and confront sectarian incidents,’ will include representatives from security and intelligence agencies as well as the country’s top anti-corruption body,” AFP noted.
Father Boulos Halim, a spokesperson for the Coptic Orthodox Church, reportedly welcomed the move, saying it is a “significant step on the right track to withstand sectarianism and extremism” in the Muslim-majority country.
“The decree will encourage all the State’s institutions to fight terrorism and will create a positive reaction within the Egyptian street,” Halim declared, according to Egypt Today.
Archbishop Anba Angaelos, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, also praised the establishment of the panel as a “welcomed step for Egypt,” Christian Today noted.
“This strategic approach to determine, address and counter-ideologies of intolerance and targeted attacks on Coptic Christian community has always been needed. Praying [for] wisdom upon those involved, and peace and safety upon all,” he said.
Christians in Egypt make up an estimated ten percent of the country’s predominantly Muslim population.
“They have long complained of discrimination, and sectarian violence intermittently erupts, especially in rural areas in the country’s south,” AFP noted, referring to Christians. “The embattled Christian minority has been targeted by a series of deadly attacks over the past two years, most claimed by ISIS [Islamic State] extremist group.”
ISIS-Sinai is one of the various international affiliates of the Islamic State still operating despite the near total annihilation of the group’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
“The group is estimated to have between 800 and 1,200 fighters in the Sinai Peninsula and affiliated cells in the Nile Valley,” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in September.
According to Coptic Solidarity, an advocacy group for the Egyptian Christian minority, followers of Christ have experienced a “sharp escalation” in violent attacks at the hands of Islamic extremists under Sisi’s watch.
This month, Coptic Solidarity, the Coptic Canadian Association, the Middle East Freedom Forum, and other U.S.-based Copts organized a peaceful demonstration at the White House and the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC, to shed light on the plight of Christians in Egypt.
In a December 18 press release, the Coptic groups declared:
Copts are living in a difficult time and the tears of Coptic families are incessant. This is a new era of persecution.In the Minya governorate, the government and society do everything possible to terrorize Copts and force them to flee their home towns. It is religiously motivated terrorism intended to force emigration of Minya’s Copt. Dozens of churches have been shuttered Copts in dozens of villages have been left without a single church. We cannot recount the litany of crimes committed against Copts in 2018 in such a brief announcement.
Claire Evans from the International Christian Concern group noted that Christians in Egypt are often treated as “second-class citizens.”
“Although most of the Middle East’s Christians live in Egypt, they are given few opportunities to take an active role in their own government,” she told Christian Today. “This new committee, while a positive step forward, will have limited success if Christians are not allowed to be regarded as equals in their own country.”