What makes killing Christians appealing?

(Originally published at www.religionnews.com on May 26, 2017)

(RNS) I was born in Egypt, and my heart is broken by this latest massacre of Coptic Christians who were headed to a monastery in the southern Minya province.

I could not bear exploring horrific photos of innocent young girls and boys butchered. They were supposed to be worshipping and praying in the monastery. For many of these children, visiting a monastery is one of the most anticipated trips. Most of these boys and girls are underprivileged with not enough means to travel and enjoy vacations. Going to pray in a holy place is considered their best option in the summertime.

There has been a reoccurring scene of targeting Christians in Egypt in recent months. Last month, in what was later identified as coordinated suicide attacks, a bomb went off at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, followed by another in a church in Tanta. More than 100 Copts were wounded or massacred. ISIS claimed responsibility.

Copts are victims of the dreadful mix of political instability and religious intolerance.

And their resilience is stunning. They still identify first and foremost as Egyptians, and say that nothing will drive them out of their homeland, whose Christian heritage goes back to the early years of Christianity. Their favorite motto is a quote by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III: “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us.”

But, what makes killing such loyal Christians so appealing? 

Without a doubt, there are many reasons, including political and social ones, but the religious reasons cannot be underestimated.

Militant Muslims know their sacred texts well, and apply them by the letter. While today’s world calls for tolerance and coexistence between faiths, militants rely on scriptural verses that offer a direct command to attack Christians and Jews: “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day” (The Repentance 9:29).

While modern and contemporary Quranic exegeses have qualified such verses, forbidding violent attacks, these militant Muslims rely on classical interpretations that are still available and revered by some.

These militants understand their Muslim historical records and consider them part of a sacred and golden era that should be followed. When they read the biography of their Prophet Muhammad, they encounter his treatment of the Jews of Banu Qurayza after they surrendered to the early Muslim warriors. Muhammad ordered the execution of every man and every male child who had reached puberty. This incident is important enough that it was recorded not only in Muhammad’s biography, but also in the collection of his sayings, known as hadith.

Whether this story is true (as some religious apologists claim it never occurred) is not the issue: Muslims seek to imitate the footsteps of the prophet.

While every soul is precious and should be kept and defended, a religious ideology twists such a humane understanding. Killing others based on their religion becomes commendable.

Attacking Copts reflects the continued desire of militant Muslims to divide Egypt by killing Christians. For militant Muslims, including ISIS members, killing Christians is not ugly anymore. It is supported by religious texts, which appear to them to make massacring Copts possible and, in a sense, praiseworthy.


Ayman S. Ibrahim, PhD, is Bill and Connie Jenkins Chair and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the Director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, and a Post-Doctoral candidate of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University.

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