Army vows to protect churches during Coptic celebrations

Egypt’s de-facto leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has ordered the army to secure the New Year’s Eve Coptic celebrations, calling on young people to participate in guarding celebrations across the country.

On its Facebook page, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued "Communique No 94" on Friday, saying that “SCAF chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi orders the armed forces to collaborate with the Interior Ministry, the youth of the revolution and the political powers in securing Egypt’s churches… [in order to] prove to the whole world the civilization and peacefulness of this great country.”

Security forces said last week that they plan to secure churches and public places, such as cinemas, theaters and nightclubs, over Coptic Christmas and the New Year.

The statement apparently seeks to ease fears of attacks on the part of Egypt’s Coptic minority. For the last two years, Copts have suffered devastating attacks during the New Year’s Eve and Christmas celebrations. Last year, at least 23 people attending a New Year’s Eve mass were killed after an explosion rocked a church in Alexandria. The year before, a drive-by shooting killed six Copts and one Muslim security guard in an attack on a church in the Upper Egyptian city of Naga Hamadi.

Last week, Bishop Kirolos, the pastor of Naga Hamadi Cathedral, warned of the possibility of a similar attack on Copts in the Upper Egyptian city.

Copts are the biggest religious minority in the Middle East and they make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million.

They traditionally complain of systematic discrimination in employment and of obstacles to the construction of places of worship. Since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak last February, Copts have suffered repeated attacks. Two churches were attacked earlier in the year, and in one incident 31 Copts were killed as soldiers violently dispersed a protest near the Maspero state television building in Cairo.

Moreover, this year’s celebrations come amid fears related to the sweeping victory of Islamic forces — specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salfis — in the first and second phases of parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salaif Nour Party won around 75 percent of seats in total.

Salfis have traditionally been discriminatory in their approach to the Coptic community, saying, for example, that non-Muslims should be barred from running for president. Some factions within the Salfi movement say that non-Muslims should not even be allowed to run in the parliamentary elections.

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