A bloody Easter for Christians in the Middle East

On Palm Sunday, as Christians gathered to commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, jihadi suicide bombers blew themselves up outside a Coptic cathedral in Alexandria, and at the altar of a church in Tanta, in the Nile Delta, killing 47 people.

Egypt’s Copts, reeling from a string of outrages, have cancelled many of this week’s Easter services. Isis, which claimed responsibility for the bombings, is playing an evil but canny game. At a time when Isis is staring at territorial defeat in its proto-state in Syria and Iraq, it is doing what it has done in both countries: sowing division with attacks on religious minorities, in this instance on the first Christians, rooted in Arab lands centuries before Islam.

Iraq, the land of Abraham, was all but emptied of Christians after the US-led invasion in 2003. Assyrian Christians, painted as complicit in the subsequent occupation and caught in the crossfire of the resulting ethno-sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Muslims, saw their numbers plummet from about 1.2m to around 300,000. When the Iraqi precursor of Isis used Syria’s similarly sectarian conflict to regroup and storm back across the border to capture Mosul in June 2014, this historic city in north Iraq lost its last Christians — about 35,000 — as the jihadis daubed the letter N for Nazarenes on Christian homes in a Nazi-like purge.

The timing of the latest attacks in Egypt seems explicable. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the former army chief who took power in a popularly backed 2013 coup, had just been feted at the White House by President Donald Trump. Pope Francis is due to visit Egypt this month. Isis not only wants to divide Egyptians but show that Mr Sisi, for all that he has rebuilt a hyper-version of the security state briefly in abeyance after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2001, is not in control.

The drama for Christians in the holy lands of the eastern Mediterranean is real enough. Over the past century, their share of the population in the near east has dropped by two-thirds to less than 5 per cent. While a lot of this outflow was Christians using a portable, missionary-provided education to seek better prospects abroad, the trend has accelerated this century.  


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