Christian protestors threw bottles and rocks at riot police in Alexandria, Egypt, January 3, two days after a bombing killed twenty-one people leaving a New Year's Eve service at the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation.
Subsequent attacks on Muslims and a nearby mosque also revealed the deep frustration of Egyptian Christians who complain the government allows attacks to be carried out against the country's historic Christian community by Muslims who want Egypt to be completely Muslim.
"You want me to leave Egypt. I will not leave Egypt. Egypt is Coptic and will remain Coptic," one woman in her mid-40s, wrapped in a white sheet stained with blood from the victims, shouted January 1 in front of the church, according to the Associated Press. "I have seen discrimination all my life. In college, at work. I am not going to take it any longer. Enough."
A two-year study documented fifty-two anti-Christian incidents between 2008 and 2010 in which none of the perpetrators were punished, human rights activist Hossam Bahgat told the AP.
Rather than investigating and arresting those responsible for the attacks, police arrest random people and then force both sides to accept "reconciliation," Bahgat told the AP. "It's an invitation for these events to recur and the victims are left feeling victimized twice, first by those who did it and second by the government."
The U.S. State Department's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, released November 17, echoed Bahgat's charges. While Egypt's constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice, the government in fact restricts religious freedom in favor of Islam, which is the official state religion, and fails to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians, the report said.
Christians face "personal and collective discrimination, especially in government employment" and the government also sometimes arrests, detains, and harasses converts from Islam to Christianity, the report charged. Government authorities often refuse to provide converts with new identity documents indicating their chosen faith. The government's refusal to prosecute crimes against Christians contributes to a climate of impunity that encourages further assaults.
Violence and discrimination against Egyptian Christians — who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's mainly Muslim population of about eighty million people — is a constant and ongoing problem. In November, hundreds of Christians rioted in Cairo after police violently stopped construction of a church building. A January 6, 2010, drive-by shooting on Coptic Christmas Eve killed six Christians and a Muslim guard. In 2009, the government destroyed 250,000 pigs, devastating the livelihood of a large community of Christians in Cairo, in a move the government claimed would prevent swine flu.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan U.S. government panel, said the Egyptian government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression and discrimination against Christians or, many times, to punish those responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.
"This attack all too clearly demonstrates the ongoing problem of unchecked violence against Christians in Egypt," Leo said in a January 4 press statement. "At present, there is no real deterrent for those who target Egyptian citizens because of their religious identity. Until there is justice and accountability, the Christian minority, and other minorities in Egypt, will remain vulnerable to extremists and terrorists."
The January 1 explosion in Alexandria ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, Compass Direct News reported. Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Authorities have suggested the carnage might have been the work of a lone suicide bomber.
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) threatened "all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers," Compass Direct reported. The threat was made in response to rumors that Coptic officials had detained two women who wanted to divorce their clergy husbands and convert to Islam. Those rumors were amplified by anti-Christian messages in Alexandria mosque services, which often were followed by street protests against Christians.
Extremist Islam is promoting an anti-Christian sentiment among rank-and-file Egyptians, said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of a Coptic newspaper. "The infiltration of political Islam into our education, our schools, into the hearts and minds of school teachers, and into our school books ... is extremely dangerous because it produces innocent children who are infected by the version of Islam that does not accept the other and preaches non-acceptance of Christians," Sidhom told the AP.
"Scores of Christians" were detained following Christmas in Tehran, according to a January 7 statement protesting the action by Iranian authorities issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"They were informally accused of being 'evangelical missionaries,' although no formal charges have been filed by authorities," USCIRF stated, noting: "Iranian law makes proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims illegal, in contravention of international standards."
According to the USCIRF statement: "Reports indicate that as many as seventy Christians have been detained over the past two weeks. Some individuals have since been released, although it is unclear how many remain in detention. While most of those detained are Evangelical Christians, members of Iran's Armenian Christian community also have been detained."
Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted in a January 7 statement: "This Christmas season, while we were celebrating the birth of our Savior in relative peace, many of our brothers and sisters in other countries have lost their lives or been put in prison because they bear His Name.
"The bombing of the church in Egypt, the events in Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the recent wave of arrests in Iran grieve our hearts," Wright continued. "These followers of our Lord have been called upon to suffer for the Name of Jesus. We pray for them and their families.
"We also call upon the respective governments to take all steps necessary to preserve the fundamental human rights of their citizens to worship our Lord according to the dictates of their own hearts without fear of reprisal or persecution."
Wright added, "We especially pray for the people of Southern Sudan as they vote on independence on Sunday, January 9." Wright is pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia.
USCIRF chair Leonard Leo, concerning the detentions in Iran, was quoted in the commission's statement as noting: "What's most troubling about this wave of detentions is the fact that Iran is continuing its recent trend of targeting Evangelical Christians, which they've been doing for years, and also leaders from the recognized and protected Armenian Christian community.
"USCIRF calls on Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release those Christians who have been detained and urges the U.S. government and international community to condemn these detentions and demand the detainees' release," Leo said.
The governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamaddon, "called the detained Christians 'deviant' and 'corrupt' and vowed to identify and detain more in the days ahead," USCIRF reported. "In a statement Tuesday, Tamaddon likened the detained Christians to the Taliban. It is unclear what Tamaddon meant by his analogy."
In its 2010 annual report, USCIRF noted that even recognized non-Muslim religious minorities in Iran — Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians — protected under the Iranian constitution faced increasing discrimination and repression.
"While the constitution of Iran formally recognizes Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected religious minorities who may worship freely, members of these groups are subject to legal and other forms of discrimination, particularly in education, government jobs and services, and the armed services," USCIRF stated.
The December 25 sweep by Iranian authorities targeted Muslim-background people who have accepted Christ and Christians accused of evangelizing Muslims, which can carry the death penalty under Iranian law.
Police forced their way into homes in the early morning hours of Christmas Day while the families were asleep in Tehran and other cities, according to news reports. They searched the homes for Bibles and Christian literature, CDs, and photos. Personal computers and documents also reportedly were confiscated.
More arrests were expected, according to state media reports quoting Tehran's governor.
Tamaddon reportedly called evangelical Christian activity in Iran a "cultural invasion of the enemy," according to The Wall Street Journal.
"Just like the Taliban, who have inserted themselves into Islam like a parasite, [evangelicals] have crafted a movement in the name of Christianity," Tamaddon said, according to The Journal, which was quoting Iran's state media outlet, IRNA.
While about 1 percent of Iran's population is Christian, sanctioned groups like Armenians and Catholics generally are allowed to worship in peace, The Journal said. However, Iran outlaws Persian-language Bibles and preaching, and Muslims are not allowed to attend Christian services.
Among those arrested, according to a source with contacts in Iran, two couples were separated from their babies, and there had been no contact with eight of those who were arrested.
The full text of the U.S. State Department report is available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148817.htm.
Reports compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston and assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly.