For the first time in its history, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that Holy Week and Eastertime prayers and services will be suspended.
Orthodox Christian and Coptic Christian observers have entered the Holy Week and are poised to observe the resurrection of Jesus’ on April 19, Easter Sunday. The Armenian community in Egypt observed Easter last week.
Egypt is home to the Coptic Christians, the oldest Christian community in the world, comprising about 10 percent of the total population.
EASTER AMID A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the country, religious places of worship have been deserted in the past month to curb the spread of the virus. Mass prayers in places of worship have been suspended since March 11. In line with the government’s preventive measures – including a curfew, ban on international flights and large gatherings as well as closure of non-essential businesses – the Coptic Orthodox Church announced on April 3 that it will not hold any pre-Easter services. A week heading up to Easter, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that Holy Week and Easter-time prayers will be banned for the public to ensure their safety and health. Worshippers are urged to watch televised Easter prayers and pray from home.
The decision is in line with the government’s decision to ban all gatherings and celebrations during Easter, the non-religious springtime holiday of Sham El-Nessim observed on April 20, as well as during the month of Ramadan. Disobeying the measures imposed can lead to EGP 4,000 fines and jail time.
Coptic Christians in Egypt have experienced a series of faith-based attacks in the past, many of which during religious occasions. Some of the attacks include a bomb attack at Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church in December 2016; the twin Palm Sunday church attacks in April 2017; a December 2017 armed attack at the Saint Mena Church; an armed attack near the Saint Samuel monastery in Minya in November 2018 and a foiled suicide attack in a church in Qalubiyah in August 2018.
Late on April 14, security forces launched a raid in an apartment in Al-Amiriya, where alleged militants were reportedly hiding out. The raid erupted into a firefight between the armed assailants and security forces. In the shootout that lasted for about four hours, seven alleged militants and one police officer were killed and three others were injured. Six automatic rifles and four cartridges were seized. In a statement, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated that police had intelligence that supposed militants were plotting attacks on Coptic Cristian worshippers this upcoming long Easter weekend. The MoI issued another statement later stating the discovery and confiscation of a cache of weapons in the Matareya area in Cairo that reportedly belonged to the armed cell involved in the Amiriya raid. The cache contained a quantity of ammunition, explosives and light weapons. Further details of the alleged plot are unknown.
As of yet, ICESERVE24 has not detected any calls from prominent militant groups, like ISIS’ Sinai Province or sympathisers to launch attacks during Easter. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the ban on public gatherings and mass services, the likelihood of high-risk militant attacks diminishes substantially. However, the country’s diverted priority on combating the spread of COVID-19, can likely create an opportunistic window for militant groups to attempt to launch attacks either on civilians or state authorities during these days. As a result, ICESERVE24 urges its clients to remain vigilant at all times when on the move.
While the Coptic Orthodox Church has moved to host its religious ceremonies on television and urged its followers to observe at home, the risk of civil unrest as a result of state authorities clamping down on lockdown violators is likely. The clamping down on social gatherings and congregations in observance of Easter, may appear to religious observers as a targeting of the Christian minority. While the likelihood of waves of civil unrest sparking as a result is unlikely, ICESERVE24 continues monitoring any potential triggers.
To conclude, the government has reiterated that attempts by the public to gather during the Easter and Sham El-Nessim holidays will not be tolerated as it is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19. Security forces are expected to be on high alert throughout the weekend.
• Remain vigilant and aware, with heightened situational awareness, especially on the days leading up to Coptic and Orthodox Easter.
• Avoid unnecessary movement during the Easter holiday.
• Anticipate heavy security presence and checkpoints on main roads and in public spaces.
COVID-19 RECOMMENDATIONS • Frequently clean hands by applying an alcohol-based hand rub or washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. • When coughing and sneezing, cover mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue; if used, throw the tissue away immediately and wash hands. • If experiencing a fever, cough, difficulty breathing or any other symptoms suggestive of respiratory illness, including pneumonia, call emergency services before going to the doctor or hospital to prevent the potential spread of the disease.