Attacks Rise Against Egypt's Christians

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EL-NAZLA, Egypt -- The call for revenge raced through this village southwest of the capital and echoed from the loudspeakers of mosques last week as the military invaded two protest camps in Cairo, killing hundreds of supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi.

"El-Sisi is killing our children," a man screamed, referring to Egypt's defense minister, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. "Muslims, come out of your homes!"

Hundreds of Islamists poured into the street, torching, looting and smashing the village's two churches and a nearby monastery, lashing out so ferociously that marble altars were left in broken heaps on the floor.

Over the next few days, a wave of similar attacks on the Christian minority washed over the country, as Islamists set upon homes and churches, shops and schools, youth clubs and at least one orphanage, killing at least three people, according to an Egyptian human rights group. As Christians were scapegoated for supporting the military ouster of Mr. Morsi, the authorities stood by and watched: in Nazla, as in other places, the army and the police made no attempt to intervene.

A police station in the area had been attacked before the churches. Ebraam Sami, who lives near one of the gutted churches, said fire trucks appeared on the edge of the town, but never entered. "They said it was difficult," he said.

Across Egypt, churches were burned and Christians terrorized. A Coptic Christian group, the Maspero Youth Union, recorded at least six deaths and the destruction of at least 38 churches, as well as attacks on at least 23 more. An activist with the group, Beshoy Tamry,primarily blamed Islamist leaders for "charging their followers with hate" and trying to destabilize the country by attacking its weakest citizens.

The government, though, was hardly blameless, he said.

"I think the state wasn't serious about protecting churches," Mr. Tamry said. "They know who is going to do what, especially in Minya. The attacks have happened before."

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that propelled Mr. Morsi to power, initially tolerated the incitement against Christians at their sit-ins, but they have started belatedly to condemn the attacks. And the military-backed government, which has done little to protect Copts or their churches, is now trying to capitalize on the church burnings as part of a public-relations campaign to paint the Brotherhood as terrorists.

Nazla and other Egyptian villages and cities have been left to cope with the war between the Islamists and the military, as political violence rekindles the sectarianism that has long troubled the country. At its churches on Monday, Christians here said they had spent days in their homes, after recognizing some of their neighbors in the attacking mobs.

The Rev. Maged Wadie' Riyad, the pastor of an evangelical church in nearby village of el-Zerby -- which was also looted last week -- said Mr. Morsi's government had intensified decades of sectarian tensions between Egypt's Muslim majority and Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of the population and have long suffered from discrimination.

"We don't have the culture of tolerance, or accepting one another, especially in the rural areas," Mr. Riyad said. Mr. Morsi, who never visited a church during his year as president -- even after episodes of combustible intercommunal violence -- "widened the gap," the pastor said

Somehow, no one was killed in the attacks on the churches in Zerby or in Nazla, where early morning services at one church had ended about an hour before the mob arrived.

Elsewhere, the toll was worse. Farther south in Minya, where at least three people were killed, days of violence only quieted on Sunday, according to Ishaq Ibrahim, who tracks attacks on Christians for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, based in Cairo.

The days after the authorities stormed the Morsi supporters' encampments in Cairo "were very tough," Mr. Ibrahim said. "There were a series of attacks on churches, schools, civic organizations, orphanages and monasteries. Almost everything that had to do with the church," he said.

Among the dead were two security guards who worked on a tour boat owned by Christians and were burned to death, he said.

Religious leaders have made little attempt to calm tensions. On Monday, a Brotherhood spokesman, Ahmed Aref, played down any culpability by the Islamist movement, blaming "foolish boys" for carrying out the attacks on the churches and the security services for failing to prevent them, suggesting a conspiracy. "It is burning with cunningness," he said in a statement.

And in recent days, the leadership of the Coptic Church has embraced the military's narrative of the conflict, praising the security forces in their fight against "terrorism" and blaming foreign news media for misreporting events.

The signs of trouble started to appear in Nazla about two weeks before the attack, when Mr. Sami and many of the almost 300 Christian families in the village started to see graffiti on their homes. On his house, the writing said: "We'll protect legitimacy with our blood," a mantra of Mr. Morsi's supporters, who have insisted that he be restored to power.

The first attack was on the Church of the Virgin Mary, which opened in April after local Christians spent 13 years collecting money and building a church, a school, a youth center and a wedding hall. Atef Hosni, who works at the church, said the rampage seemed unplanned. He stood in the sooty remains of a computer lab, picking through the debris. "This room didn't have anything to do with belief," he said.

The mob moved on, torching the village's old church, built in the 1930s, and a nearby monastery, where heat from the fire bent steel girders that once held up a roof.

At the same time, a crowd was attacking Christian homes and shops in Zerby, before arriving at the Mr. Riyad's church, St. Demiana's. "They broke through the gates and stole whatever they could," he said. "What they couldn't steal, they burned." They also broke into his office, he said.

In the chaos, there was a moment of hope. Mr. Riyad said a Muslim resident stepped in and challenged the mob, "saying if they burned it, they should burn him as well."

His actions saved the church from total destruction, the pastor said.

Mayy El-Sheikh contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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