CCRF Responds to Tragedy in Charleston, SC

James Morton,Thursday June 18th 2015, The CCRF Blog

charleston shooting
If you thought that racism was not a big deal anymore in the United States, then the events of this last week should make you think again. It may well be an ideology of the past, today seemingly confined to a few fringe extremists, but an extremist driven by a historic hatred can still make a tragic impact. Such was Dylann Roof, the neo-Confederate racist who believed that all his problems could be solved if only he could rid America of black people. Numerous photos and evidence from social media and accounts of acquaintances have emerged showing him as a supporter of Apartheid and racism. It is now beyond question that his motivation for entering the historic Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston on Wednesday and murdering nine people was a historic – and fantastical – grievance against black Americans. We at the CCRF wish to offer our deepest sympathy to the families who have lost loved ones and our support for the African American community as it continues to endure the consequences of centuries of discrimination.

Although the circumstances and histories are not the same, Coptic Christians understand what it is like to be scapegoats for another group’s grievances. Attacks on churches, including bombings and shootings, have become a common event in Egypt. In January this year, two Egyptian policemen were shot dead as they stood guard outside a Coptic church in El Minya during a Christmas service. In October 2013, 4 people were killed and 12 injured when masked gunmen opened fire at a wedding in a Coptic church in Cairo. In April 2013, the historic Coptic cathedral of St Mark in Alexandria came under siege during a funeral service; molotov cocktails were thrown and shots were fired, resulting in 2 dead and several more wounded. In January 2011, a bomb exploded at a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 and injuring 97. Seven Coptic Christians were killed in a machine gun attack on a Christmas service in January 2010 at Nag Hammadi; the list could go on.

Protesters stormed and set the Archangel Michael church ablaze Aug. 14, 2013, in response to the Egyptian military clearing out protesters in support of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The roughly 2,000 attackers spent four hours destroying the 97-year-old church. (Amina Ismail/MCT)
A car burns at the scene of a bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla, Suleja, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja, December 25, 2011. Five bombs exploded on Christmas Day at churches in Nigeria, one killing at least 27 people, raising fears that Islamist militant group Boko Haram - which claimed responsibility - is trying to ignite sectarian civil war. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde (NIGERIA - Tags: CRIME LAW RELIGION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 18:  People stand outside the Emanuel AME Church after a mass shooting at the church that killed nine people on June 18, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina. A 21-year-old suspect, Dylann Roof of Lexington, South Carolina, was arrersted Thursday during a traffic stop. Emanuel AME Church is one of the oldest in the South. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the case of Egyptian Christians, churches are targeted partly because of the religious symbolism – the attackers are invariably Islamic extremists. However, this is not the only reason. Dylann Roof did not attack the church in Charleston because it was a religious building, but because it was a spiritual home for an African American community, making it a convenient place to find the people he hated gathered together. There are other comparable events. Take, for example, the July 2008 attack on the Tennessee Knoxville Unitarian Universalist church, in which Jim David Adkinsson shot two people dead and injured seven others on the grounds that the church was politically liberal, and he blamed liberals (and African Americans) for the country’s problems. Not only Christian churches are affected: in August 2012, a Sikh gurdwara was attacked by a white supremacist, who killed 6 and wounded 4 others.

Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Churches are not just religious buildings; they are spiritual homes where whole communities congregate, and that makes them prime targets for extremists who blame those communities for a range of ills. The blame is always misplaced, and the ills themselves are frequently more perceived than real. While the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt has a religious rather than racial dimension, the same poison lies at the heart of the violence, whether it be against Christians in Egypt, African Americans in Charleston, or any other persecuted community you care to name: sectarianism. This is the belief that there is another group of human beings who are not like you, who don’t deserve the same rights as you, and who must be to blame for whatever problems you think you have.

What is perhaps especially disturbing for observers here in the United States is that the poison extends beyond the one or two deranged individuals who snap and go on a murderous rampage. This is perhaps clearest in the Egyptian case. Copts are officially – by law – second-class citizens in Egypt and simply do not have the same legal rights as Muslim Egyptians. In the siege of St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the state security services actually took part in the attack, and only Coptic Christians were arrested. It is, in fact, very common that attackers go unarrested while the victims of the attacks find themselves accused in court. Such obvious state-sponsored discrimination sends a clear message to the fringe extremists that their violent actions will be tolerated, and there can be no doubt that it plays an indirect role in encouraging sectarianism.

In the United States, such official discrimination does not exist. Yet violent attacks such as the one on the church in Charleston are not just freak accidents resulting from deranged individuals having easy access to deadly weaponry. These are the primary causes and need to be addressed, but there is a more subtle issue involved. Just as the Egyptian extremists have their enablers in mainstream Muslim society who approve discrimination against Christians, might American extremists like Dylann Roof and his white supremacist friends have their own enablers in mainstream society here? You might not even notice it. The Confederate flag – with its obvious historical associations – still flies over the South Carolina state house. Our cities have been historically divided – in many cases deliberately – into separate rich white and poor black neighborhoods. Black people are consistently more likely to be stopped by police, and more likely to suffer police brutality when they are stopped. And so on. The broader tone of society can make an extremist feel that his views are somehow normal, that his actions are somehow vindicated.

People visit a makeshift memorial near the Emanuel AME Church June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the  Church on the evening of June 17, 2015.  US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Noah Nicolaisen, of Charleston, S.C., kneels at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the shooting. Police apprehended the lone suspect during a traffic stop in Shelby, N.C., an almost four-hour drive from Charleston.

What can we do about this? There are policy areas that cry out to be addressed urgently, like the ready availability of lethal weaponry in the United States or state-sanctioned discrimination in Egypt. However, the problem of one community scapegoating and blaming another community for its problems is a deep-seated one that can only fixed with a long-term solution: education. Ignorance of another community leaves room for hatred to breed, but when people come to know each other and recognise their shared humanity, it becomes difficult for them to blame one another. As Christians, we must strive to recognise the image of God in everyone, and help others to do the same – even those who persecute us.