All throughout last week, some five or six Coptic churches in Egypt have "caught fire"—the worst occurring on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022, at the Church of Abu Seifein (named after Saint Mercurius of Caesarea, who is revered by the Copts). At least 41 Christians — 18 of whom were children — were either burned alive, killed by asphyxiation, or during the subsequent stampede. Along with the officiating priest, five-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother, and an aunt were among those killed.
Considering that Muslims have torched or bombed hundreds of Coptic churches over the decades in Egypt — and often when churches are packed — it is, of course, difficult to resist that explanation. Moreover, this last week was the "anniversary" of when Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers torched 62 Coptic churches in Egypt in 2013, suggesting that the same elements may have been "commemorating" those events by burning more churches and Christians.
Even so, Egyptian officials, followed by media, Egyptian and Western, were quick to blame "faulty electric wiring" for the fire that killed 41 Christians. As many observers have noted, however, this explanation is suspect if for no other reason than that it was offered up literally minutes after the fire broke out, and, as is well known, it takes a serious, prolonged investigation before such a determination can be made — not minutes.
Here one is reminded of the probable torching of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, a nation which, not unlike Egypt, has also witnessed countless attacks on churches. In the days before the Notre Dame fire, for example, it was revealed that, on average, two churches a day were attacked in France — a country that holds one of Europe's largest Muslim populations — some with human fecal matter smeared on them (a "stunt" not uncommon in the Muslim world). And, as with the burning of the Church of Abu Seifein, the torching of Notre Dame was immediately, before any serious investigations had been conducted, attributed to "faulty wiring."
Be that as it may; even if faulty electrical wiring is the true culprit of last Sunday's fire, the government of Egypt is still largely to blame. Since Ottoman times — indeed, since the Arab-Islamic conquest — severe restrictions, based on sharia stipulations, have made it next to impossible for Christians not only to build but to repair churches. Although a 2016 law was heralded as repealing these draconian stipulations, practically speaking, and as many Copts have noted, little has changed. To this day, most Coptic churches in Egypt are shoddily built, cramped, and poorly wired.
As even the New York Times reported: "The Copts have long complained about being the victims of discrimination on the basis of their religion. One aspect of that discrimination are government restrictions on the construction, renovation and repair of churches in the largely Muslim country. These restrictions have left many of the buildings in disrepair and made them fire hazards."
In the end, more churches have burned, and more Christians have been killed. And whichever way one looks at it—whether because Muslims who are "radicalized" in government-funded mosques are responsible, or whether church restrictions, dilapidated buildings, and faulty wiring are responsible — in the end, Egyptian leadership and government are responsible.
Raymond Ibrahim is the Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum.