This past Palm Sunday two suicide bombers killed over 45 people at two churches in northern Egypt. One made his way all the way to the altar at St. George’s Cathedral in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, while the other was stopped at the gate outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where he detonated his explosives.
These attacks—along with the December 2016 bombing of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Church at the cathedral compound in Cairo, the May massacre of 30 Copts in Minya, and ongoing violence in Arish and elsewhere—have raised questions about the Egyptian state’s ability to protect Christian citizens from the threat of terrorism. But amid the breakdowns, church leaders have developed routines and relationships with security authorities to provide a joint system of security.
On Easter Saturday evening, the chief Easter celebration in Egypt, I went to the midnight vigil at a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo. The streets were cordoned off and a barrier channeled the throngs of worshippers through a tight security check. Police vans with heavily armed officers were everywhere. Yet as I approached behind several Egyptians getting their bags searched, a layman from the church caught my eye and motioned me forward. Nodding to the police, he allowed me to quickly pass through the metal detector and into the service.
One week later, it seemed Easter had been an aberration. The normal two to three policemen kept watch on the church from a distance. A couple church doormen glanced casually as I walked by them after passing through the metal detector. Yet in conversations with several church officials about internal security, they seemed satisfied that the apparently reduced police presence offered sufficient protection.
Each official I spoke to noted that the police have their essential role in protecting citizens and their establishments. But especially since the December bombing, internal church security has been more vigilant. To best understand the situation nationwide, I spoke to an Upper Egypt Coptic Orthodox bishop, a Cairo lay leader of a Coptic Orthodox church-based scouts group, and two ordained church leaders in the Nile Delta, one Orthodox and one from a non-Orthodox tradition. The precautions taken by all were very similar. But to avoid identifying markers in a tense security situation amid fears of ongoing terrorism, their names and specific locations are withheld.
In terms of physical security measures, these leaders stressed the importance of metal detectors and surveillance cameras. Yet these are expensive, said the Upper Egyptian bishop, and some churches are unable to afford them. There are efforts to share resources in the diocese so that each church is equipped properly. But many noted these are insufficient for deterrence; if a terrorist is determined to blow himself up there is little that can be done to stop him.
What is necessary, from the churches’ perspective, is to keep the terrorist outside. The church has asked police to set up their checkpoints at a distance (depending on local geography), and the police have asked the church to help them identify the people approaching. Coordination between churches and security officials is mostly local, and a hybrid system has emerged.
From the church side two groups have assumed increased responsibility: the doormen and the scouts. Most churches in Egypt, like many residential buildings, have a bawab (doorman) or several to keep watch over the entrance all day long. And the Orthodox Church has a long tradition of kashaafa (scouting), where young people are given character training and eventually provide internal church organization on major holidays and for special events.
The scout leader emphasized they provide no “protection” for the church—this is the role of police. And the Upper Egyptian bishop stressed there are no weapons inside the church whatsoever—this is refused on principle. The Muslim Brotherhood has actively accused the church of cultivating “militias” in support of the current regime, tagging the scouts in particular. The police have provided minimal training in the techniques of searching bags and anticipating issues, church leaders acknowledged. But they added there has been no systematic training from either the state or church leadership. In the current polemical atmosphere, official attention to the protection of churches is ripe for sectarian incitement, but the involvement of scouts is simply a development of what they have always done, they said.
On a major holiday police security increases to meet the added symbolic threat as well as the increased attendance. But the scouts are out on the street with them, helping to lessen the load. Someone known to the church community can bypass many procedures, but still be ushered through the metal detector. The bawabs are within the gate, also with their eyes open.
When strangers approach they are first asked by the scouts for identification, and if they cannot produce one they are to be refused entrance. They may be asked to show the tattoo of a cross many Copts bear on their wrist or hand, or be asked about their family or other details to establish Christian credentials. Their bags will be searched. All this is handled by church people, with police close by and alert. If the police would have to frisk everyone who approaches the church, the hundreds who come would take hours to process, with much frustration. But church leaders are confident that the quick clearance of known worshippers with non-police interrogation of strangers ensures both ease of movement and necessary security.
On a normal service day the intensity of major holidays is not necessary. The Alexandria priest estimated that on holidays 10-15 percent of worshippers might be unknown to the church. For regular mass, it might be one percent. The lower police presence and a handful of bawabs are more than capable of monitoring the situation, with a metal detector at the gate for added security. Large city churches might also have an additional set of eyes from the scouts or otherwise, but his lower-class urban congregation almost never has unknown guests.
One source said that in the face of a suicide bomber no on-site security will be sufficient; the state must better develop its intelligence work to snuff out threats beforehand. And the non-Orthodox leader emphasized the best defense is in education and changing mentalities of the population. One church runs a social services center frequented by poor Muslims and Christians. Another welcomes community Muslims and Christians in art and cultural activities. There is a possible added security risk, he said, but if you open the door in love people generally respond well. Even so, police are present and the community knows each other, Muslim and Christian alike.
The police deployment—especially on major holidays—shows the government is responding to security features of the terrorist threat. But after the passage of time, a normalcy returns and there can appear to be a reduced level of alertness on the part of both police and church security. Vigilance can be difficult to maintain over the long term.
But it is essential. While the bombing in Tanta was indicative of a breakdown, in Alexandria a regular churchgoer asked to keep watch over the gate is the one who directed the suicide bomber to enter through the metal detector. He was among the 17 people who died, along with three Muslim police officers. Even if every church coordinates with police, terrorism cannot be stopped by the citizens or security. Once a terror plot is in motion the damage can only be limited.
“The explosions do not scare us; we have to be ready for anything,” said the scout leader. “But if something happens it is from God.”