Egypt’s Christians ravaged by sectarian attacks

CAIRO — For the first time in 129 years, the Bible Society of Egypt has come under attack as targeted violence terrorizes the Coptic Christian community across the African country.

Following the military dispersal of two main sit-ins in Cairo, where more than 600 supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi were killed, Coptic churches, schools, homes, businesses and even orphanages have been attacked. Some were burned to the ground. Others had Molotov cocktails lobbed through their windows. Bibles and religious relics were burned in the street.

Some pro-Morsi Egyptians have accused the Copts — a religious minority making up around 10 percent of the Egyptian population — of promoting and even triggering the ouster of the former president. Copts maintain that Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters are responsible for the wave of attacks.

Uncharacteristic targeting

As the main importer and distributor of Bibles in Egypt, the Bible Society has stores across the country.

“We have always been very safe in Egypt,” said Ramez Atallah, the society’s general director. “The majority of people are peace-loving.”

But in the days following the violent clearing of the Islamist sit-ins in Cairo, two of his stores went up in flames, completely destroying everything inside.

Atallah said that the hatred targeting Copts is uncharacteristic of Egyptians. In his opinion — an opinion shared by many in his religious community — the attacks are brazen, planned acts of revenge for the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from power and the mass death toll following the state-sanctioned dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins.

Much of the blame targeting the Copts stems from Coptic Pope Tawadros II’s public support of Morsi’s removal from power, as well as a very notable appearance with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when the army takeover of the government was announced.

While some Muslim Brotherhood leaders condemned the attacks in public statements, others have publicly — and privately — singled out the Coptic minority in Egypt. Many point to a hate speech by Islamic cleric Safwat Hegazy at a Muslim Brotherhood rally, where he claimed that the majority of those Egyptians opposed to Morsi’s rule were actually Christians. Following the heated speech, the crowd chanted, “With our blood and souls, we will sacrifice for you, Islam.”

A question of security

Many Copts feel the country’s security forces are not adequately protecting Copts after the military takeover of the government. In an independent investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Minya, a city in Upper Egypt where anti-Coptic violence has run rampant, the organization determined that security forces had failed miserably to protect Egypt’s Christian community.

“For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming … but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s Middle East director. “Now dozens of churches are smoldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”

In many cases, official help never arrived, even though locals pleaded with police and military forces to intervene. Other Copts say the extent of the sectarian attacks and damage is too great for the military to step in every time.

While some Coptic establishments, especially churches, now have armed bodyguards around the premises, a few men versus a frenzied mob is no match, they say.

In Minya, X’s were drawn on Coptic homes and stores by enraged protesters, distinguishing them from Muslim-owned properties. Buildings marked with an X were then destroyed. The word Islameyya (or Islamic in Arabic) has been spray-painted on many Coptic properties — a word commonly chanted by pro-Morsi protesters in Egypt.

At least 42 churches have been attacked, in addition to countless other sites, according to Human Rights Watch. In one case, three nuns were paraded through the streets by an angry mob after their Franciscan school was torched.

More often than not, it is Muslim neighbors who come to the rescue and aid Copts who are under attack — not state security forces. Muslims and Copts alike can be seen guarding churches from extremist Islamist protesters, many of whom wish to instill an Islamic state in Egypt.

Politicized attacks

Some Egyptians say the interim government is using the Coptic population to further justify a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in the country, while simultaneously disregarding Coptic pleas for help.

“By politicizing the attacks further and using it as a justification for the crackdown on the Brotherhood,” wrote Coptic writer and photographer Timothy Kaldas in the Egyptian outlet Mada Masr. “The government and media are leaving Egypt’s Christian community more exposed to attack while offering no protection from the predictable consequences of this exploitation of their suffering.”

Many Copts, though they adamantly opposed the election of Islamist president Morsi, do not trust nor whole-heartedly back the military, like many Egyptians do, though they prefer military rule to that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

An October 2011 massacre, where security forces killed dozens of Christian protesters, running some of them over with military tanks, is just one incident that has fueled animosity between the religious minority and the government.

“Christians are left to choose between those who incited against them and murdered them two years ago and those who are doing the same this month,” said Kaldas.

Since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, more than 100,000 Copts have fled the country as crime and violence took hold of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, came to power.

Even as Islamist protests and support have seemingly been quelled by the interim government, many Copts fear they will continue to have a nonexistent or meager voice in the political conversation in Egypt.

Signs of hope

While many Copts fear sectarian attacks will continue as long as political disputes boil over in Egypt, hope is not hard to find.

After a Coptic orphanage in Minya was burned down, leaving 16 boys homeless, a campaign was launched on social media to raise enough money to renovate and repair the damaged building. People as far as Ecuador and Australia are sending donations and supplies.

And at the Amir Tadros Church in Minya, parishioners told reporters that though the church was torched, a single picture of Jesus Christ survived the blaze, hanging behind the alter. 

Sophia Jones writes from Cairo.