Pope Francis will begin his visit to Egypt on Friday, marking the first papal visit since 2000. The visit comes at a crucial time; one where sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians, Copts specifically, are at an all-time high. The visit has been described as a “call for peace”.

The escalating violence is a culmination of years of sectarian tension and strife.

The nation that once sported three stars on its flag, each representing one of the country’s three major religious communities, has seen the expulsion of the Jews and the persecution of the Christians – all in the past 65 years.

Churches of all dominations did not hold any celebrations this Easter this year in remembrance of the victims of two terrorist attacks on Palm Sunday celebrations in Tanta and Alexandria.

At least 44 people were killed in the twin suicide bombings in the two separate cities.

The deadly attack wasn’t the first, and sadly it may not be the last.

Magdolin Mounier a survivor of the Two Saints church bombing in 2011 spoke to The New Arab about what it feels like to be a Copt under attack.

“The blood [was] on the walls and everywhere, the crying and screaming. [I felt] fear that myself, my family and Christian friends are threatened, that death is the only truth,” Magdolin said.

The Egyptian government has often brushed aside violence against Copts, ignoring deep-rooted sectarian divisions in favour of tired rhetoric about national unity.

Images of priests and imams standing side by side holding up Qurans and crosses are continuously recycled in state-backed media reports.

“It is important that the whole world watch us, the Egyptians,” said Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he attended Christmas Eve mass in 2015 – making him the first Egyptian president to attend mass.

“You noticed that I am not using another word than Egyptians. We are the Egyptians,” he said.

For Copts the realities of Sisi’s Egypt are very different from the flowery language he uses when he attends church.

“We always hear the story of Muslims attacking Christians then a reconciliation session substitutes criminal prosecution. At the best Christians are given a financial compensation for the crimes committed against them; and at worst, they are asked to leave their homes to relieve tensions. That is institutional discrimination” said Magdolin.

The under representation of Copts in public and government sector is evidence of the institutional prejudice the minority continues to face.

Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II leads the Easter mass at the Saint Mark’s Coptic Cathedral, in Cairo’s al-Abbassiya district on April 15, 2017 [Getty]

No Copt has ever been appointed to a teaching position in any of the nation’s gynaecology departments.

No Copt serves in the civil or military intelligence. The number of Copts in the military, police, judiciary and foreign service is kept at one percent.

There is only one Coptic governor out of 25. There are 36 Coptic MPs out of a 596 total, majority of whom were appointed, not elected. The official census puts Copts at 10 percent of the population while unofficial sources indicate that this number is a gross underrepresentation.

At the best Christians are given a financial compensation for the crimes committed against them; and at worst, they are asked to leave their homes to relieve tensions. That is institutional discrimination

It is all too common to hear Muslims use racial slurs when describing Copts. Words like Koftis, a derogatory alternate to Copt, are casually used on the streets. Other terms like, resha zar’a – blue feather – in reference to the cross tattoo majority of Copts bear on their wrists, are also commonly used without recourse or scandal. Hurtful language is not the worst the Coptic community had to endure from their countrymen.

Between 2011 and 2016, Minya alone witnessed 77 cases of sectarian attacks on Copts, according to a study conducted by The Egyptian Initiative of Personal Rights, a well established Egyptian human rights NGO.

In one incident in May 2016, an elderly Coptic woman was paraded naked through the streets of Minya by a Muslim mob reacting to the rumour that her son was in a relationship with a Muslim woman. Three men were arrested, the case was initially dropped by the prosecution but was reopened after public pressure.

Such violence has been brewing and escalating in Egypt for decades. The first recorded example of Muslim mob attacks against Copts took place in 1972 and is referred to as the al-Khanaka incident. A group of Muslims attacked and destroyed a church temporarily operating in an old school building in Qalyubia, north of Cairo.

This was not always the case. There have been moments in which genuine unity was an Egyptian reality. Coptic priest Murqus Sergius famously ascended the pulpit of countless mosques including Al-Azhar and Ibn Tauloun to rally his countrymen against British occupation during the uprising in 1919.

At least 44 people were killed in the twin suicide bombings at Palm Sunday services in the two separate cities [Getty]

Historically, Copts clung to the belief that they are Egyptians – not Arabs. They believe that they are descendants of pharaonic ancient Egyptians. For centuries, they carefully preserved and passed down their language from generation to generation.

Such beliefs set the Coptic community on a collision course with the country’s Arab republic, announced in 1954. Under the military regime, churches require presidential approval to carry out even the most minor repairs – this task was delegated to governors in 2005. Building new churches is almost impossible and mosques do not face similar requirements. There are less than 3,000 churches in Egypt and more than 100,000 mosques.

Nasser’s death was followed by Pope Kyrillos’ own demise. As Sadat fashioned himself as the ‘pious president’, Pope Shenouda III was enthroned in 1971.

Sadat’s anti-socialist, Islamist aspirations saw the country declare itself an Islamic nation with Sharia principles as the main source of law.

The church vocalised its persistent discontent over the continued underrepresentation of Copts in the national census and Pope Shenouda was a vocal opponent of the Camp David Accord. The clash between Sadat and Shenouda saw the latter stripped of his papal title and exiled to a monastery in Wadi Natrun. The president also ordered the arrest of 170 priests.

The political infighting quickly translated to violence on the street; 81 Copts were killed after a dispute over a piece of land that was initially planned to house a church in el-Zawiya el-Hamra, an urban suburb of Cairo.

Muslims in the area argued that a mosque was meant to be built on this land. President Sadat, in an address to parliament, reduced the violence to a scuffle between neighbours over dirty laundry.

During Mubarak’s 30 years in power, Copts suffered at least 20 sectarian attacks. Most famously was an attack that took place 25 days before the uprising that eventually overthrew him erupted. The New Year’s Eve bombing of Two Saints church in Alexandria has been a source of mystery since documents were released detailing the involvement of Mubarak’s Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly in the attack. This raised questions about the level to which the regime has been directly and indirectly complicit in sectarian attacks against Copts.

Six months after Mubarak was deposed, the military council that governed Egypt, SCAF – which now President Sisi was a member of – violently dispersed a peaceful sit in of Copts protesting the demolition of a church. The Maspero Massacre left 28 dead and 212 injured.

Discrimination against Copts is entrenched in the political institutional realities of the Egyptian state.

Such discrimination is mirrored by many in the country’s Muslim majority. Islamic State bombs have killed tens of Copts but Egypt’s forsaken minority has been facing challenges long before these terrorists turned their attention to Egypt.

[Authored by Gehad Quisay and originally published by The New Arab under the title “Coptic Christians – Egypt’s forsaken community”. Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, who graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.]