Egypt's Christians under attack

Copts bear the brunt of violent backlash against military crackdown

Egyptian churches attacked

The Amir Tadros coptic Church in Minya on Sunday. The building was set ablaze on Aug. 14.

The Amir Tadros coptic Church in Minya on Sunday. The building was set ablaze on Aug. 14.Virginie Nguyen Hoang/AFP/Getty Images

The scene inside the Evangelical church in Mallawi, Egypt, August Saturday, after it was looted and set on fire. David Degner/Getty Image

The exterior of the Amir Tadros coptic Church in Minya on Sunday.

The exterior of the Amir Tadros coptic Church in Minya on Sunday.Virginie Nguyen Hoang/AFP/Getty Image

Burned books inside the Amir Tadros coptic Church in Minya, Aug, 14.

Burned books inside the Amir Tadros coptic Church in Minya, Aug, 14.2013 AF

A resident surveys the remains of the Evangelical church of Mallawi Saturday after it was looted and set on fire.

A resident surveys the remains of the Evangelical church of Mallawi Saturday after it was looted and set on fire. David Degner/Getty Images

On Aug. 14, as Cairo erupted in the worst mass killings of Egypt's modern history, 150 miles south in the city of Minya, a man with a megaphone stepped out from Khodeiry Mosque and entered Palace Square, a few blocks from the governorate's security headquarters.

Shouting into the microphone, witnesses said, he began to deliver a simple and chilling message: The bloodshed being unleashed on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi -- who had been encamped in the capital's Rabaa el-Adaweya square for six weeks -- was the fault of Egypt's Christian minority.

"Tawadros, you coward," he said, referring to the pope of the Coptic Church, "call off your dogs from the square."

Mina Nazmey, a 24-year-old Christian living on a nearby side street, watched apprehensively as a crowd grew. Beneath a banner bearing Morsi's image, microbuses arrived and unloaded groups of men. By noon, the attacks began.

In the days-long wave of sectarian violence that followed -- unprecedented in its scope and apparent coordination -- mobs torched and ransacked Christian establishments across Egypt, claiming to be avenging state violence against Morsi supporters.

While the military-backed interim government has been keen to use the violence against Christians to discredit the Islamists with the West, Christians here say the attacks were foreseeable, that the state did little or nothing to protect them, and that there is little evidence anything will change.

By the time the violence ebbed, 65 churches and monasteries, 22 buildings associated with Christian ministries, and more than 100 Christian shops and houses had come under attack, according to a list published online by Bishop Ermia, the president of the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center in Cairo. Coptic activists said five Christians had been killed, and while the exact number of casualties was unknown, Minya's Coptic bishop, Abba Makarios, said two Muslims had died defending a church there.

"What happened this week set us back by 30 years," Bishop Makarios said.

Many of those inciting violence against the country's Christian minority pointed to support by Tawadros II for the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi, and before that, to the large numbers of Christians who reportedly voted for Morsi's opponent in the 2012 presidential election, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq.

But it is hardly that simple: Periodic bursts of violence against the long-sidelined minority -- believed to comprise around 10 million of Egypt's 90 million people -- increased during the last years of the Mubarak era. Sometimes the violence prompted accusations that even though the regime proclaimed itself the defender of Christians, it turned a blind eye to sectarianism which served as a distraction from its own failings. In October 2011, barely eight months after Mubarak's ouster, 28 people were killed in Cairo when security forces fired on a predominantly Christian protest against an earlier mob attack on a church.  

The government appears eager to publicize the sectarian attacks when engaging foreign journalists, but such concern hasn't translated into action in governorates far from Cairo's gaze. In the Minya governorate, accounts put the number of Christians at 35 percent of a population of 5 million people.

Growing incitement in the governorate had prompted Christian leaders to warn before Aug. 14 that attacks should be expected, but there was little response from the security services, who later claimed that they had been pinned down in their own stations by armed Morsi supporters.

When the mobs reached Minya's Bishop Moussa's Church the night of the attacks, the priest called police for help, Nazmey said.

"If you have pistols, then defend yourself," came the answer.

Major General Abdel Aziz Qora, the top security official in Minya governorate, said he and other high-ranking officers had not been informed of the exact time the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo would be cleared, leading him to relax plans he said had been put in place to protect Christian establishments in the governorate. 

All 12 of Minya's major police stations came under attack during the violence, which left 13 policemen dead. "Everywhere was hit at the same time," Qora said.

Six days after the attacks, sections of Minya's Nile-side Corniche remained blocked off by security forces, and government buildings there were heavily defended, but police were nowhere to be seen at the city's churches, despite Qora's assurance that he had "enough" men to do the job.

Farther north, in the city of Beni Suef, a Franciscan nuns' school that had been torched last Wednesday also stood unguarded on Monday, its gutted interior open to the public. A pro-Morsi march wound through the city in the distance, while gunshots – their source unidentified – echoed in the streets around the school. An armored police truck sat quietly at a station some 50 yards away that locals said had also come under attack on Aug. 14.

"We don't have guards, we have our Lord," said a member of a nearby church who had come to inspect the school.

The Aug. 14 attacks in Minya began at a two-story Christian-run orphanage, its green-painted façade set behind an iron fence and a small pavilion dotted with trees, which stood several dozen feet from Palace Square. Witnesses said the mob smashed the windows and burned and ransacked the interior. The children had been moved out a month earlier, said Michael Adel, a staff member.

The crowd pushed down the street, torching a Christian-owned pharmacy, a pair of Christian-run schools, and the Amir Tadros Church, where they lobbed Molotov cocktails over the wall, chipped away the concrete around an iron door, burst through, stole valuable electronics and systematically looted or burned most of the church's books, furniture and religious iconography. Seeing crosses hanging inside several cars on the street, Nazmey said, they set fire to them.

Kirollos Girges, a 19-year-old parishioner who was inside Amir Tadros when the attack began, said he fled to the second floor, then leapt onto the roof of an adjacent building before making his way back to the street to watch. Across town, Christian activists said, two men hiding in the bathroom of the Christian-owned Mermaid Boat -- a restaurant and tourist establishment -- died when a mob set it on fire.

A fire truck arrived at the church, came under gunfire from the mob, and pulled back. It returned, guarded by four riot police in a covered pick-up truck who fired their automatic rifles in the air. They too came under fire, Nazmey said, though it was unclear from what kind of weapon. One soldier was shot in the shoulder, and the police withdrew, he said.

At the Jesuits and Brothers Association, 35-year-old Milad Abdel Shihad, who oversees guest services at the sprawling complex, said he watched as four men leapt over a wall outside his office. They claimed to be fleeing the mob, so he offered them water and showed them out through a metal gate connecting the association's motor pool with the street.

Two hours later, as Shihad sat inside, he heard shouts from the direction of the gate. The men, he believed, had been the mob's scouts. A swarm of men began scrambling over another wall. They blasted holes through the glass in the front door of the building containing his office. He and four other employees fled down a hallway as the mob began setting fire to the association's vehicles and buildings, destroying entire wings meant for educating the mentally and physically disabled.

The Association, which has been operating in Minya since 1966, has suspended all its work in the governorate as it waits for police to investigate and the situation to calm, said Magdy Asham, one of its directors. He said he believed that the new military-backed government would do a better job of protecting Christians, but admitted he had little evidence to support that hope. "It's all feelings now," he said, "not facts."

Asham believes that Egypt's Islamists had been unable to accept that Christians were openly participating in elections and advocating for themselves after Mubarak's fall.

Like others, he claimed that protesters at Minya's pro-Morsi sit-in had chanted, "Oh what a shame, the Nasara became revolutionaries," using a derogatory term for Christians.

"As if we don't have the right," he continued, his shoes crunching over broken glass. "They consider us guests in Egypt."

There is little evidence in Minya that the past week's violence will spur meaningful changes to the government's approach to sectarianism or the engrained, decades-old biases that allow it to be stirred up by unscrupulous politicians.

Qora, the major general, cited the recent resolution of a community brawl in Bani Ahmed, a town in Minya, as a possible model for a way forward. There, a fight between Muslim and Christian friends earlier in August developed into a politicized riot that left Christian houses burned and 17 people injured. The government pressed both sides into a solution typical of the Mubarak era: state-sanctioned "reconciliation" that required lawsuits to be dropped and payments made. But such reconciliations have long been criticized by human rights groups as simply sweeping problems under the rug, leaving criminals unpunished and, at times, forcing victims out of their own communities.

"People are happy about the way it went," Qora said.

In Makarios' offices, the bishop spoke differently.

"The situation is the result of dozens and dozens of years of neglect," he said, urging changes to school curriculums and to unfair laws long decried by the Coptic Church, such as those regulating the construction of churches. Most importantly, the cleric said, Egypt's culture would have to change.

"Why does a 5-year-old child hate a Christian?" he said.

Cultural changes take many years of conscious intervention, of course, and the track record of the Mubarak era and the military-led transition, as well as the current uptick in Islamist incitement against Christians, don't offer much grounds for assuming such changes are coming. Instead, last week's events in Minya served up an ugly reminder that Egypt's Christian minority remains a whipping boy in the conflicts between more powerful forces -- conflicts which are, unfortunately, escalating.

Paul Sedra, an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University who researches Coptic issues, said he worried that the Coptic leadership expected the same quietist relationship that Pope Tawadros' predecessor had with Mubarak.

"I detect no substantive, positive change in the state's response to sectarian violence," he said. "I think the state's opportunistic use of the attacks to impugn international media coverage of Egypt only demonstrates that government officials are exercising less care on this volatile issue, and showing less sensitivity to Coptic sensibilities, than in the past."

One of the Coptic churchs in the village Millawi near Minya was set on fire and partially burned and looted by a small mob on Aug. 17.

One of the Coptic churchs in the village Millawi near Minya was set on fire and partially burned and looted by a small mob on Aug. 17.David Degner/Getty Images

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