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13 September 2013

The Ashes Of Churches Pile Up Across Egypt

 Anti-Christian attacks have swept through Egypt since Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi was ousted. Christian properties have been desecrated and reduced to rubble.

By Kristen Chick

Minya, Egypt

When a wave of attacks on churches and Christian properties swept across Egypt last month, this city was hit the worst.

Minya's streets are now lined with burned-out hulks. Church interiors have been reduced to ash. The once-cheerful turquoise exterior of a Christian orphanage is now streaked black from the fire that gutted it. Destroyed wheelchairs sit outside a burned-out Jesuit center that worked with disabled people. Torched schools, shops, and monasteries lie in ruins. On one street, several Christian-owned shops are reduced to scorched rubble. Nearby, an untouched snack shop blares a song that proclaims “Egypt is Islamic.”

As the attacks happened, police did little or nothing to stop them. 

For some Christians, the trouble didn't stop when the flames died down. A few days after their church was torched, a neighbor relayed an anonymous threat to Said Botros Attallah and his wife Sahar Atteya Saadallah: Pay 500 Egyptian pounds, or their house would be burned down – with them inside. 

Samir Lamei Sakr, a lawyer who focuses on human rights, has already seen his home burned down in the village of Delja, in Minya province. He says there is no going back. He fled to Cairo with his immediate and extended family after mobs attacked their houses, and killed his cousin, dragging his body through the streets behind a vehicle, Mr. Sakr says.

The extremist-controlled village has no security presence. Christians in Delja are paying protection money, and Sakr says his life would be in danger if he returned.

Many Christians in Minya say life grew more difficult after Islamists came to power in 2012, and they hope for an improvement now that the Army has deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. But the lack of state response to the wave of attacks on Aug. 14 and the consistent failure to provide security in places like Delja, is a reminder that, Islamists in power or not, Egypt has a history of failing to secure and protect Christians or bring their attackers to justice, a failure that continues today.

Mrs. Saadallah and Mr. Atallah have not gone to the police about the threat because they say the police would not help, and might make their situation worse. “The police won't protect us,” says Atallah. “They might arrest the thug, but his family will be able to come after us.”

“Protection is only from God,” added his wife.


The couple's church was one of at least 45 attacked or burned across Egypt on Aug. 14, when security forces broke up two Cairo protest camps full of supporters of ousted leader Mr. Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader and first freely elected president in Egypt who was deposed by the military on July 3.

Though they started with bulldozers and tear gas, police quickly turned to live ammunition against the protesters after some of them opened fire at security forces. The police continued shooting for hours, killing hundreds of people.

Hours after security forces moved in Cairo, attacks on churches began, in many places following a similar pattern. Mobs attacked police stations first, then moved on to churches, Christian institutions, and Christian-owned properties. Witnesses said some mosques broadcast calls for Muslims to gather and take revenge for the assault in Cairo. At least 16 churches in Minya province alone were damaged or destroyed, along with 100 other buildings, according to a church official.

In the preceding weeks, Islamists had engaged in anti-Christian rhetoric. They accused them of orchestrating Morsi's ouster and railed against the Coptic orthodox pope for supporting it. The government has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of organizing the church attacks, though there is no evidence and Brotherhood leaders have denied the accusations and condemned the attacks.

Despite a lack of trust in police, Saadallah and Atallah hope the situation for Christians will improve under the interim military-backed government. Both say it was impossible for the police to protect churches and property on the 14th because there were simply too many attacks, including many on police stations.

'They will always try to burn churches'

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