AL-OUR, Egypt (Reuters) - When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dispatched fighter jets this year against Islamic State targets in Libya in retaliation for the beheading of 21 Copts, he sent a powerful message to his country’s Christian minority.
Copts have long complained of discrimination under successive Egyptian leaders and Sisi’s actions suggested he would deliver on promises of being an inclusive president who could unite the country after years of political turmoil.
However, striking out at extremists abroad might prove easier than reining in radicals at home.
Orthodox Copts, the Middle East’s biggest Christian community, are a test of Sisi’s commitment to tolerance, a theme he often stresses in calling for an ideological assault on Islamist militants threatening Egypt’s security.
Sisi, who as army chief toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, presents himself as a moderate Muslim reformer determined to counter what he calls the existential threat posed by an array of Islamist forces.
But in places like al-Our, a central Egyptian village where 13 of the Libya victims came from, it is Muslim neighbors more than armed militants who can make life tough for Christians.
Just weeks after the February airstrikes, Christians in the mixed village say they were attacked by Muslims who were angered by Sisi’s decree allowing the construction of a new church to honor those killed by Islamic State.
The assailants threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at Coptic properties in al-Our, which is perched on the banks of the Nile, and several people were injured.
It was a reminder that the Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, remain vulnerable despite assurances and goodwill gestures from the president.
Tension between Muslims and Christians had simmered for years in Egypt, but relations worsened following the 2011 revolt that led to the downfall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Hardline Muslim clerics gained unprecedented freedom to preach on Egyptian television after the uprising, and some openly derided Christians on air. The election of the Brotherhood’s Mursi only added to the sense of unease.
When Sisi announced on television the military takeover in mid-2013, it was a carefully choreographed event designed to show his priority was healing divisions. One of the religious figures flanking him was Coptic Pope Tawadros.
Christians paid a price for that image.
After security forces killed about 1,000 Mursi supporters on the streets of Cairo, dozens of churches and Christian properties across the country, including here in Minya province, were destroyed by alleged Brotherhood sympathizers.
Persistent insecurity and entrenched discrimination against Copts could ultimately help undermine the president’s efforts to portray himself as the man who can deliver stability to both Egypt and a wider Arab world under assault by militancy.
He has certainly done more than his predecessors to embrace the Copts, who consider themselves descendants of the pharaohs. Notably in January he became the first Egyptian leader to attend Christmas mass at Cairo’s main cathedral, reducing some worshippers to tears.
Meena Sami, a parishioner at Amir Tadros church in the city of Minya, which was burned to the ground following Mursi’s removal, echoes a common sentiment among Copts.
“We feel that we have a president. We feel that we have an army,” he told Reuters during a tour of his church, which is being rebuilt partly by army engineers.
Former parliamentarian Mona Makram Obeid said despite legitimate demands for better treatment, Copts are unlikely to turn on Sisi. “They feel that they are more secure,” she said.
Despite Sisi’s overtures, critics say he has done little to reform institutions or challenge deep-seated biases.
The state’s continued handling of Coptic issues through the security apparatus generates a “culture of impunity” that exacerbates violence, said Samuel Tadros, a researcher in Washington with the Hudson Institute.
“They say things will calm down, but the reality is they don’t, because the mob gets a prize. Every time you throw more prizes to the mob, (it) realizes being a mob is the way to solve its problems.”
Days before the March violence in al-Our, a group of Muslims confronted Christians expanding a church in al-Galaa, a nearby village of dirt roads and mud brick homes.
In both cases, residents and activists said, security forces were slow to intervene and forced them to make concessions to the assailants to continue building the church in peace. Copts allege this is a long-standing government tactic.
“Our crops were dug up, our homes were burned, our people were injured. We’ve conceded all this in exchange for building the church,” said Father Tadros Ibrahim, head of the church in al-Galaa, in a dank room serving as a makeshift worship hall.
Plainclothes police officers keep watch around the clock in al-Galaa as laborers scramble over the wooden beams of a new two-story church.
Reuters’ repeated requests for comment from the presidency and the interior ministry went unanswered.
Sisi has promised the state would rebuild the churches destroyed after Mursi’s ousting as well as the honorific church in al-Our, but with funding slow in coming, Copts say they have relied mostly on donations.
Some say renovations have become easier, although a statute requiring presidential approval for all new churches remains.
Despite allegations of discrimination, some Copts are highly successful, wealthy and influential.
The billionaire Sawiris family and former finance minister Youssef Boutros Ghali are counted among Egypt’s elite. But many complain of an unspoken rule excluding them from the highest echelons of the civil service, the presidency, senior army and police ranks, and even top university posts.
Outside a centuries-old church in Cairo’s historic Christian neighborhood, tattooist Maged Ghobrial, who has been marking Copts with crosses for 20 years, praises Sisi but remains cautious.
“Everyone is nervous. Nobody understands what could happen tomorrow. God willing Egypt will be well. But not now, after 10 years at least. We must be patient,” said Ghobrial, before advising a couple that their infant was too young for a tattoo.
Editing by Michael Georgy and Crispian Balmer