In October, al-Qaeda threatened to attack Egypt’s Christian minority if the Coptic Church fails to release women who have allegedly converted to Islam, and who claimed that they are being held captive in monasteries.
The measures came after the deadly attack on a Catholic church in Baghdad that killed 58 people and wounded nearly 80 when militants stormed the church during Sunday Mass.
“We told the people to go vote if polling stations are properly secured,” Bishop Kirollos of the Naga Hammadi Diocese told Al-Masry Al-Youm hours before the elections. “As you can see, the atmosphere is not that safe.”
In January, six Copts and a Muslim guard were killed in a drive-by shooting after they left a late night mass on the eve of Coptic Christmas.
At the time, local media quoted church officials as saying that the ruling National Democratic Party MP, Abdel Rahim al-Ghoul, is linked with a Muslim “thug” who is currently being tried for planning the attack.
Al-Ghoul, who is currently running for reelection in Sunday’s vote, vehemently denied the accusations.
On Wednesday, head of the Egyptian Coptic Church Pope Shenouda III denounced the use of force against Coptic protesters.
The statement followed Wednesday’s clashes with security forces over a decision to halt construction on a Giza church.
Authorities claim the church lacked the required permits.
The violence left two Copts dead and scores injured.
“God gives authority to some people so they can give comfort to those under their rule, but authority should not be violently exercised,” Shenouda said.
Bishop Kirollos called for the increased presence of security forces around Naga Hammadi’s churches.
“We got used to vandalism and attacks,” said Kirollos. “But recent violence has caused even more panic within the Coptic community in Naga Hammadi.”
Nearly two weeks ago, angry Muslim villagers torched dozens of Christian homes in the Nawahed village of Qena (twenty Kilometers north of Naga Hammadi), after rumors circulated that a Christian man was having an affair with a local Muslim girl.
In January, Copts blamed the police for not properly protecting the church where attacks took place despite the circulation of threat messages in the Christian dominated city following allegations that a Christian man raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.
In recent weeks, the city has witnessed the proliferation of election related violence.
Eyewitnesses said that al-Ghoul’s car was completely destroyed on Thursday.
Last month, one election campaigner was killed in al-Raesiyya village, adjacent to Naga Hammadi.
Bishop Kirollos said that the Coptic community is largely disillusioned by the election candidates.
“The Coptic community feels badly discriminated against, and they think that none of the existing candidates are theirs” said Kirollos. “All competing parties, whether belonging to the NDP or the opposition, have not addressed Coptic concerns in their election platforms.”
Copts, who account for nearly ten percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, constitute the Middle East’s largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination.