Who Are Egypt's Coptic Christians and Why Is ISIS Targeting Them

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A relative of one of the victims reacts after a church explosion killed at least 21 in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017.
A relative of one of the victims reacts after a church explosion killed at least 21 in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017.Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Tuesday's attack on the famed Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai late on Tuesday, killing one policeman and wounding four, is the latest in the ongoing seige of Egypt's Christian population by Islamic militants. The attack come two weeks after deadly bombings of two Coptic churches in separate cities, which were claimed by the Islamic State group.

The devastating bombings, which claimed 48 lives, on one of Christianities' holiest days (Palm Sunday, which begins the holy week before Easter Sunday), has drawn the world's attention on Coptic Christians. The Copts, as they are also known, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Coptic Christians are the majority of Egypt's roughly 9 million Christians, with a diaspora of over 1 million more Coptic Christians living in Africa, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, many of whom have fled persecution in Egypt. 

Coptic Christian theology is based on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, according to St. Takla Church in Alexandria, the capital of Coptic Christianity - which was also the scene of one of the tragic Palm Sunday bombings. 

The Copts, who have their own Pope, have long been a favored target of extremists - they were struck with a similar church bombing just weeks before the country's 2011 Arab Spring uprising, and Islamic militants gave them a particular focus during a crackdown on them in the 1990s - but the past five months been particularly bloody.

Moktar Awad explains ISIS' motives in the Atlantic, "The group hopes to destabilize the Middle East’s most populous country and expand the reach of its by now clearly genocidal project for the region’s minorities."

Copts have been attacked outside Egypt as well, in early 2015, ISIS beheaded over a dozen Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, for which they later released a propaganda video.

U.S.-based think tank the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy said the attacks brought the total number of sectarian incidents against Copts to 26 in 2017, with a total of 88 killed including those at a major church bombing in December.

Following are major attacks against Egypt's Coptic Christians over the past year:

April 9:

Twin bombings, at least one by a suicide bomber, hit churches in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 43 people were killed and scores of worshippers injured on the Palm Sunday attack, which narrowly missed a ceremony presided over by Pope Tawadros II in Alexandria's St. Mark's cathedral.


Hundreds of Egyptian Christians flee their homes in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, fearing attacks by Islamic State militants. The group's North Sinai affiliate had killed at least seven Coptic Christians in the restive peninsula in less than a month.

The Islamic State group affiliate in Egypt releases a video vowing to step up attacks against the Christian minority, describing them as their "favorite prey." It showcased a December attack on the church adjacent to Cairo's Saint Mark's Cathedral, which claimed the lives of 30 worshippers.

December 2016:

A bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt's main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo claimed by IS kills 30 people and injuries dozens during Sunday Mass in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory. The high death toll serves as a grim reminder of the difficulties of Egypt's struggle to restore security and stability after nearly six years of turmoil.

July 2016:

Pope Tawadros II says that since 2013 there were 37 sectarian attacks on Christians in Egypt, nearly one incident a month. A Muslim mob stabs 27-year old Coptic Christian Fam Khalaf to death in the southern City of Minya over a personal feud.

May 2016:

A Muslim mob ransacks and torches seven Christian homes in Minya after rumor spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman. The mother of the aforementioned man was stripped naked by the mob to humiliate her.

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