(AINA) -- The drive-by shooting of Copts as they left Christmas Eve mass on January 6 in the southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi has shocked and enraged Copts all over the world. International condemnations poured in after the attack, which left six Copts dead and nine injured, with Italy, Canada, France, the Vatican, the US Congress, and the European Parliament, expressing their concerns about the safety the Copts in Egypt. In reply, a statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said, "It is an internal Egyptian matter that no foreign party is allowed to consider."
The shootings triggered unprecedented protests by Copts inside Egypt and abroad. Explaining this Coptic reaction, Coptic intellectual Magdi Khalil said on Life TV on February 4 "This incident is not like the rest. Copts feel they are in danger, and a bigger one is forthcoming. They finally have realized that the crimes against them are not individual incidents but rather 'crimes against humanity' planned by the Egyptian State itself."
Thousands of Copts participated in peaceful rallies in Western countries, voicing their grievances and exposing the Egyptian Regime's infamy. For the first time Coptic clergy participated in the rallies, and in some countries members of parliament also attended. Petitions have gone out to most Western leaders, and a great number of Copts have contacted their Parliament representatives asking for support (video).
After the shootings, state security imposed a news blackout on Nag Hammadi. The media and rights activists were forbidden to enter the area, and those who did were arrested. To counteract this, Votoc and Middle East Christian Association, two Coptic advocacy groups from outside Egypt, exposed the false information given by the government using their heavily frequented Paltalk chat rooms. They carried out updates and live interviews with Coptic witnesses from the scenes. Their servers were hacked twice by government operators.
The outrage of the international community and the success of the Coptic immigrants in raising awareness of the serious situation of the Copts caused the Egyptian government to intensify its efforts to silence them.
The Coptic Diaspora has always been accused by the Egyptian regime of "tarnishing" Egypt's image by presenting Coptic problems before foreign governments instead of solving them inside the country.
"Weakening their role as a pressure group abroad is a way to sabotage Coptic efforts in obtaining real gains," Khalil said, "and depriving the Copts in Egypt from the lungs through which they breath. The real work for the Coptic Issue is done abroad, and not inside Egypt. Coptic emigrants are effective on the political and human rights levels."
According to Khalil, the Foreign Minister, Ahmad Abu el-Gheit, held a secret meeting on January 19 with all his aides and ambassadors -- excluding the two Coptic ambassadors -- around the world to announce a "new strategy" to encounter the activities of the Coptic Diaspora. Abu el-Gheit said the Coptic Diaspora is a "fifth column," "enemies of Egypt," "who have a separate identity" and "all measures ought to be taken in all Egyptian Embassies around the world to curb their activities." The second part of the "new strategy" is to "convince the homeland Copts that the activities of the Copts abroad will increase Muslim attacks on them, and the outside world will not be able to save them." Khalil said that he got this information from a Muslim ambassador who attended the secret meeting and who disagreed with the policy.
Reacting to world pressure President Mubarak said on January 25, during his speech to mark national Police Day, that there have been "continued attempts" to disrupt national unity in Egypt and provoke sectarian strife in the country. "There exist extremists on both sides, and there are individuals who try to exploit Egypt's ordinary people. We must resist these efforts with all our powers." These comments were viewed as a threat directed at the Copts, particularly in North America, who are always vocal about the persecution of Egypt's Copts.
Intensive media campaigns were waged to distort the reputation of Coptic migrants, accusing them of treason, fanaticism and of seeking "empowerment through foreign support," a term invented by the government to intimidate and terrorize them.
Khalil criticized this moniker, saying "as American citizens, we use our constitutional rights to help our Coptic brethrens in Egypt to get their citizenship rights. We have not asked for any financial aid to be cut from Egypt, or sought military intervention from a foreign power. We are only asking that the Egyptian State honor its international obligations."
It has been reported that a draft has recently been presented to parliament making "empowerment through foreign support" a criminal offense.
Outspoken journalist Salah Eissa of Dostor Newspaper wrote an article on February 5, claiming the Egyptian regime hired PLM Lobbying Group to influence members of Congress to support the Egyptian policy and the Mubarak regime. "The regime mounts a campaign against Copts in the Diaspora because they are knocking on the doors of Congress and sending letters to its members about conditions in Egypt," wrote Eissa. "The regime wants to monopolize America for itself and prevents any of Egyptians, even U.S. citizens, from contacting anyone."
For a long time the government has put pressure on the Coptic Church to discourage Coptic human rights activities in the West. It was infuriated by priests participating in the latest rallies.
In an article published on January 25, The Al-Gomhourya Newspaper accused Pope Shenouda of causing sedition by allowing the Coptic priests to join the rallies abroad. "We expected the Pope to instruct his chaplains to stop these demonstrations," the article said.
A letter dated January 26 from the Egyptian Ambassador in Canada, Shamel Nasser, to Rev. Marcos, of St. Mark Church of Toronto, contained a veiled threat: "both Muslim and Christian preachers to adopt speeches that would assure and confirm the religious unity and equality between Muslims and Christians." This letter was viewed as an indirect threat to priests not to join the rallies and to also discourage their congregations from joining the protests.
On January 30 the Toronto rally went out as planned with 10,000 Copts participating.
Egyptian Embassies abroad were known to have successfully terrorized Coptic participants in rallies, taking their photos threatening retaliation by state security when they visit Egypt.
"Copts in the West are not afraid of any kind of government threat and we are ready to face all challenges," Khalil said. "We are not better than Martin Luther King, or the people who were martyred in Nag Hammadi."
By Mary Abdelmassih