Background to the terrible attack on a church in Helwan, Egypt

Sent On: 
Sun, 2017-12-31
Newsletter Number: 



(Source: CNN)


Yesterday, Friday December 29, three extremists killed 11 people in Helwan, a city south of Cairo, Egypt. Two Christians were killed in a shop, eight Christians were killed in front of the church of St. Mina, and one police officer trying to close the door of the church to stop the extremists from entering the church was killed as well. We have friends in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Helwan and offer them our condolences.


Mr. Feije Duim, of the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands, immediately wrote his Egyptian Church contacts:

“We will pray for the victims and their families, for the witnesses of the violence, for the police officer who gave his life. Let God be with them and surround them with people who care. We express our concern for you as churches and Christians in Egypt, having to endure this criminal injustice that victimizes innocent citizens of your country, members of your community, part of the living community of the world wide body of Christ. 

May the Lord be with us all over this world, wherever we stay and live. May he strengthen us to stay upright to seek justice instead of injustice, light instead of darkness, and life instead of death. Let us spread our testimony of love - the love of Jesus Christ whose birth into this world we celebrate these days - to defeat hatred.”


Other condolences have been received from the Catholic and other churches, the Azhar, President al-Sisi, and many others in Egypt as well as abroad.


The attack was widely reported internationally. Most media reports linked this attack to previous attacks on churches, and the recent attack on the Sufi mosque in Bir el-Abed, Sinai that left 311 people dead. None of the many articles that were consulted explained what the reasoning for the attack could have been.


With President Mursi (2012-2013), Islamists had their first Islamist president who was advocating an agenda to ‘Islamize’ the country and in doing so, alienated many segments of Egyptian society. That resulted in large-scale demonstrations and ultimately, the removal of President Mursi in July 2013. Islamists like to call this “a coup d’état against the first democratically elected president of Egypt.” Many Western media outlets have, mistakenly, taken over that vocabulary, since it gives the mistaken impression that Mursi’s rule was fully democratic. Whether Mursi obtained a majority in the 2012 presidential elections is disputed. Mursi side-lined Egyptian law when it suited him and when people called for new presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood, instead, called for counter-demonstrations instead of seeking ways to compromise.


Much of Egypt’s history between 2011 and 2014 is not understood.  Would it have been different if then general al-Sisi would have called for presidential elections in the summer of 2013? Islamists would not have accepted this as well. We are dealing with a dichotomy between Egyptians who fully believe in the narratives of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies and are strongly opposed to anyone who oppose their “Islamic project,” and those who are strongly opposed to the narratives of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies. Neither party shows little intention to engage in dialogue with the other.

For background on this period see:

  • C. Hulsman (ed), From Ruling to Opposition; Islamist Movements and Non-Islamist Groups in Egypt 2011-2013, Tectum Verlag, 2017.
  • Cornelis Hulsman (ed) and Diana Serôdio, The 2014 Egyptian Constitution; Perspectives from Egypt, Tectum Verlag, 2017.

Large numbers of Islamists have either been arrested or escaped the country. Many have been killed. Hundreds of thousands of others, however, are silent, and avoid public discussions out of fear of repercussions. Again others engaged in violence, initially targeting Egyptian security and military, and later, also judges and Coptic Christians. The attack on the Sufi mosque in Sinai demonstrates that Sufi Muslims are also not safe from these extremists. All these groups are believed to be responsible for their “Islamic project” (Mursi’s rule) coming to an end.


The three attackers fit that category. The Ministry of Interior stated that 33-year-old Ibrahim Ismail Ismail Mustafa had earlier participated in five different attacks on police and civilians between 2016 and 2017. The assailant was armed with an explosive device and a machine gun. The attack took place at 10.30 am, a time during which Christians meet on Fridays for worship.  People were gunned down as they were leaving the church service.


Coptic journalist Nagy William said there were three perpetrators. One of them was killed, one was arrested, and one escaped. Their aim was obviously to make as many victims as possible. The fact that the doors were closed in time, both by an Egyptian policeman and people inside the church, prevented more people from being killed. No one inside the church was hurt.


In 2015, I took an Egyptian delegation to the Dutch Clingendael Institute where we had a discussion on how to address extremism. Violence is used after the person has been convinced that his beliefs only can be expressed through violence. With such a person, dialogue is not possible but could dialogue play a role with Islamists who are not engaged in violence? Here the Egyptians and the Dutch participants in this discussion did not agree. Decisions in how to reduce such attacks are not easy but what is certain is that heavy-handed security responses alone are insufficient.


Different media wrote that ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack but can we take that claim serious? They claim any attack that fits their line of thinking.


CNN and other media called Father Ebram Mikhail, the Archbishop of the Helwan district. This shows reporters know little of the Coptic Church hierarchy. Helwan is a bishopric and not archbishopric. The head of the bishopric is Bishop Bissenty, a man who has been for many years very active in Muslim-Christian dialogue, a dialogue with Muslims who are open such dialogue but I doubt if this has included any radical anti-Christians Islamists, the category these attackers came from.


CNN and other western media continuously write that Coptic Christians make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s population. That has become a mantra in which people believe without any evidence. If one is to believe these media, this percentage has remained unaltered for decades yet the fact is that the percentage of Christians has been declining for at least half a century, and continues to decline due to on average smaller families then Muslims and larger emigration. Also, conversions of Christians to Islam are definitely larger than the other way around. For more background on Coptic statistics see: C. Hulsman, Discrepancies between Coptic Statistics in the Egyptian Census and Estimates provided by the Coptic Orthodox Church, MIDEO 29, 2012.


Friends of us told us they have cancelled their visits to Egypt because of the attack on the Sufi mosque in Sinai. Are such attacks a reason to avoid visiting Egypt? I do not believe so. Attacks are not random. They take place in northern Sinai, and concern in other parts of the country Egyptian government functionaries and Coptic Christians. That is horrible but attacks also can take place in Western cities. Furthermore, Egyptians are extremely welcoming and nowhere on the streets would one feel unsafe.

We pray that 2018 will show a reduction of violence. We need justice, mutual love, and empathy. Governments and civil society everywhere in the world need to contribute. This is not a task for any one party but a task in which we all should participate.


With wishes for a blessed 2018,


December 30, 2017


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report


Some media consulted: