Joshua Hammer in Smithsonian Magazine:
The Coptic branch of Christianity dates to the first century A.D. when, scholars say, St. Mark the Evangelist converted some Jews in Alexandria, the great Greco-Roman city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. (The name Copt derives from the Arabic word Qubt, meaning Egyptian.) Copts now make up between 7 percent and 10 percent of the country’s population, or 7 million to 11 million people, and are an integral part of Egypt’s business, cultural and intellectual life. Yet they have long suffered from discrimination by the Muslim majority. Violent incidents have increased alarmingly during the wave of Islamic fanaticism that has swept the Middle East.
On New Year’s Day 2011, a bomb exploded in the birthplace of the Coptic faith, Alexandria, in front of al-Qiddissin church, the largest of the city’s 60 Coptic churches, as worshipers were leaving midnight Mass. Twenty-one died. “We all rushed into the street and saw the carnage,” said Father Makkar Fawzi, the church’s priest for 24 years. “Those who had gone downstairs ahead of the rest were killed.” Alexandria “has become a focal point of the [Islamic fundamentalists], a breeding ground of violence,” says Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Watani (Homeland), a Coptic newspaper in Cairo.
Since the New Year’s Day bombing, sectarian attacks against Egypt’s Copts have escalated. Forty Egyptians died in 22 incidents in the first half of this year; 15 died in all of 2010. Human rights groups say the breakdown of law and order in the first months after Mubarak’s ouster is partly to blame. Another factor has been the emergence of the ultraconservative Salafist Muslim sect, which had been suppressed during the Mubarak dictatorship. Salafists have called for jihad against the West and the creation of a pure Islamic state in Egypt.