As it loses ground elsewhere in the Middle East, the Islamic State (ISIS) has stepped up terrorist attacks in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country but also home to the region’s largest Christian community. The latest attack was the killing of 45 people at two Christian churches on Palm Sunday. ISIS seems intent on sparking a religious conflict between Egypt’s majority Muslims and minority Christians. Yet if anything, the attacks have drawn the faiths closer. Other countries that seek a good defense against ISIS should take note of how Egyptians are countering the militants’ message.
A good example was an interview on Cairo’s Dream TV with the nephew of a Muslim policewoman assigned to protect Coptic Christian churches but who was killed in the April 9 attacks. “I say to our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters. Do not be sad. Muslims and Christians are one. It’s not about Muslim attacking Christians,” said the nephew, Islam Fathi. His words echoed those of many leaders in Egyptian society.
Egypt has struggled for decades to calm sectarian tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims. ISIS is well aware of the occasional violent flare-ups in local communities. And the government could be doing far more, such as giving Copts greater rights and privileges while also offering better protection of churches.
Yet the best attempt to safeguard Muslim-Christian coexistence comes from the top two religious leaders, Grand Imam Muhammad al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II. In 2011, the two launched an effort, known as “The House of the Egyptian Family,” to reform religious teachings about the others and seek to end the root causes of religious violence.
The program sends out teams of Islamic imams and Coptic priests to meet with young people and to go into villages with high sectarian tensions. The teams hold sessions on reconciliation that focus on each faith’s shared message of peace for a diverse society like Egypt’s.
The rest of the Middle East needs similar models of such cross-faith harmony. They would be a soft but powerful weapon against the hate and violence of both ISIS and Al Qaeda.