CAIRO — When the Islamic State group paraded before the world its grisly slaughter of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, it could hardly have expected Egypt’s response: a massive outpouring of solidarity for Christians from their government and Sunni Muslims in society.
“This criminal act has united more and more the Egyptian people, Christians and Muslims,” Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, told the Register from Cairo.
Egypt is the most populous Arab nation, with 85 million people, 10% of whom are officially estimated to be Christian.
Within hours of ISIS’ video, Egypt unleashed its military might against the fundamentalist Muslim group in retribution. Warplanes first launched airstrikes against ISIS training camps and weapons depots near Derna, where the terror group and its allies have set up an “emirate.” Egyptian news sources report Egypt’s special forces subsequently launched an attack on ISIS bases in Libya.
“Let those near and far know that the Egyptians have a shield that protects and preserves the security of the country and a sword that eradicates terrorism,” said a statement released by Egypt’s military following the airstrikes.
Nation Mourns Its Martyrs
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has publicly called for seven days of national mourning, describing the slain Copts as “martyrs” who belong to Egypt.
Father Greiche added that the bonds forged between Christians and Muslims during the popular overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood on July 3, 2013, have only deepened with the martyrs' deaths.
“The Muslim community has been giving us condolences, even people in the streets: They come to give condolences to the Christians and also on Facebook,” he said. “The Egyptian people, Christians and Muslims, are not people who love blood: It is against their peaceful nature, and that is why people are getting closer and closer together.”
Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s center for Islamic learning, has also spoken out and condemned the killings.
“Throughout Egypt, Christians and Muslims alike have been condemning the killings,” he told the Register. “There has been such an outpouring of emotion because this has been seen to affect Egypt and their fellow Christians.”
He added that the people’s response in Egypt “demonstrated that when there is something that has affected one part of the community or society, then it’s a time for all to stand together.” He noted that close to 40 Egyptian Muslim fishermen were captured by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS), and their fates are unknown.
Honoring Egypt’s Martyrs
Father Greiche said al-Sissi proposed to Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, that they erect a church to honor the 21 Coptic martyrs.
“For Christians, [al-Sissi] is a hero,” Father Greiche said, “because he acted immediately after this criminal act, and he shows a proximity to the Coptic community in many things.”
He added that al-Sissi granted permits a month ago for the building of four churches — one Protestant, two Orthodox and one Catholic — which Mubarak had never granted, and backed the restoration of more than 60 churches destroyed in a wave of violence spurred on by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
Bishop Angaelos added that the government has pledged support to the Christian families who lost their means of support when ISIS martyred their men.
“There is a plan to compensate people financially, albeit small amounts, as a gesture, because these were the main breadwinners of these families who died,” he said.
“They came from very modest villages in Upper Egypt, and the reason they had traveled was to have money they could send back to support their families.”
Solidarity Among the Churches
The suffering endured by Egyptian Christians has drawn them closer together. Father Greiche noted that, in these situations, the differences of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant confessions falls into the background to focus on the “ecumenism of blood.”
He added that Pope Tawadros told them that Pope Francis contacted him personally over the telephone to express his solidarity with him and Egypt’s Christians.
“Pope Francis was very quick to react and show his nearness to the Egyptian Christians who were murdered and their families,” he said.
The outpouring of ecumenical solidarity, Bishop Angaelos said, reassures Egypt’s Coptic community that they are not alone. However, he said there is a need to keep the situation of the Christians alive in the consciousness of the West.
“Christians in the Middle East continue to face incredible hardships. The problem is that our television screens change topics very quickly,” he said.
“If we keep these issues alive, and keep them alive for the sake of people in the Middle East living there, I think that will mean they will feel supported, and other people will feel accountable.”
War of Ideas
However, according to a leading religious-freedom advocate, defeating ISIS will require the U.S. and the West to engage fully in a “war of ideas” that can help Middle-Eastern nations rip the veil from ISIS propaganda.
“We need to do a better job of countering their images and propaganda, and we haven’t done that,” said Nina Shea, a senior fellow who focuses on human rights at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
Shea said the West needs to understand that ISIS has “a positive vision of an earthly utopia that they call the khalifeh [caliphate]” and to understand the failures of the caliphate, from cruelty to women and children to making foreign recruits front-line cannon fodder.
“Every one of their weaknesses needs to be broadcast — that they are not the invincible soldiers of Allah that they claim to be.”
But Shea believes that President Barack Obama is showing a “foolhardy” reluctance to identify the religious terms of the conflict, which need to shape U.S. foreign policy.
“We need to understand that this is a religious battle that is being fought by a group that self-identifies as Islamic,” she said.
“There are policies that flow from that, and one of the policies is that we’ve got to support the moderate Muslim leadership that is fighting ISIS: like al-Sissi in Egypt now, the king of Jordan and the Kurds; and we have to help them, arm them and train them — including the Nigerian government, which we have dissociated ourselves from,” she said. “There are disputes, but we have got to work around the disputes.”
White House Discontent With Egypt
But the Obama administration’s ongoing dispute with Egypt’s government is evident in its cool response to Egypt’s strikes against ISIS in defense of its citizens.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s outgoing spokesman, told reporters at a Feb. 18 press conference the Pentagon is not taking a stance on Egypt’s right to strike back against ISIS in Libya.
“We weren’t notified ahead of time,” he said. “We didn’t participate or support them in any way, and we’re not taking a position on it.”
The U.S. government has had a strained relationship with Egypt, ever since the military intervened to back the popular revolution that overthrew former President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. After taking power in 2012, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood unleashed one of the worst persecutions of Coptic Christians in Egypt’s history, both during their short-lived rule and after their fall, until put down by Egypt’s security forces.
The U.S. has typically provided an annual $1.5 billion in arms support to Egypt’s government, but Kirby said that the administration is continuing to “review the security assistance policy” in light of “political developments inside Egypt.”
“We are still holding — currently holding — on the delivery of several weapon systems to include the F-16s, the M1A1 tanks and some other things, like Harpoon missiles,” he said.
Rather than wait on the U.S., Egypt is turning to France and Russia for military aid. The Egyptians signed a 5.2-billion euro deal with France on Feb. 16 for 24 Rafale combat aircraft, a naval frigate and air-to-air missiles.
It is likely that dispute will carry into the United Nations Security Council, where the U.S. will have an opportunity to approve or veto Egypt’s request the U.N. mandate an international coalition intervene in Libya, recognize the government in Tobruk and restore stability to the country that al-Sissi said has been rife with “extremist militias” since the NATO-assisted overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Ghadafi in 2011.
Public opinion in Egypt toward Obama is very low, Father Greiche said, adding that Egyptians have been shocked by the U.S. administration’s “double standards.” The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, is a designated terrorist group in Egypt, but the president met with Muslim Brotherhood representatives at the White House in January.
“Nearly every day we have some bombs on the metro, on the buses, in the streets, killing normal people,” he said. “This is a terrorist organization, making terror in Egypt and around the world, and is the whole origin of the ideas of Daesh — and they are received in the White House and Congress? We need an answer.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.