Yesterday, while the world was focused on the grisly and violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, which have so far resulted in at least 638 deaths, Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which makes up less than 10 percent of the population, faced their own crisis as Islamists burned Coptic churches, businesses, and schools in predominately Christian towns across the country.
The Coptic rights group Maspero Youth Union estimates that as many as 36 churches were set on fire across the nine counties home to the largest Coptic communities. Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian NGO Initiative for Personal Rights, added that one monastery, two social-services offices, and three schools were attacked, and seven churches were burglarized. (The violence continues—Nile Revolt activists are keeping a tally on violence against Christians.) Ishak fears things will only get worse. "Most churches burned were in the main towns of each county," he said. "More [fires] are expected in distant villages in coming days amid the absence of police and army."
It’s not clear whether the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters deliberately chose to target Christians (some government buildings were also attacked) or if the attacks were premediated, but in any case the the Coptic community has been devastated. I talked to three eyewitnesses to the assaults from three different counties. All have different perspectives, but none of them expect the government to intervene. They said the police and military only arrived long after the attacks, or never came at all.
VICE: Can you tell us what you saw?
Marco Rasmy, an activist from Sohag, a city on the west bank of the Nile: At 8:30 AM, [members of the Muslim Brotherhood] were gathered at Al Thaqafa Square, which is the main square in Sohag, where they always gather for their protests and marches—this is also where Mar Guirguis church is located. By nine, I saw a church bus being attacked by the protesters and burned while they yelled, “Islameya! Islameya!” [Islamic state] and cursed about Copts. When they couldn’t break into the church because of the steel doors, they broke the advertising boards in front, and then they broke into the [church's annex]. Then they started attacking all the shops around the church including the pharmacy of Dr. Mounir, which was right beside the church. They set fires to cars, then stormed buildings, including an apartment right in front of the church—people were running and trying to escape. This lasted until 11:30, when Ministry of Interior armored cars stormed in and fired tear gas. They fought until 1 PM.
Later in the evening, I went back to see how things were. The three chapels were burned and looted, the administrative buildings were completely burned down. When the curfew started [at 7 PM], I went to the hospital to check on victims. I was told that people had gunshot and pellet wounds. Around the same time the Church of the Virgin was also attacked [on the other side of town]. I was told that it endured similar damages.
How are you sure the Muslim Brotherhood are the ones responsible?
I am certain because I’ve been going to protests since [November 2011], and I know very well how [the Muslim Brotherhood] are and how they act. A lot of them wore the green headbands and carried the green flags [of the Muslim Brotherhood]. Also the gathering point by the church is where the Muslim Brotherhood protesters usually meet.
What do you think is the reason for these attacks?
They’ve always hated the Copts. There were chanting on loudspeakers in Al Theqafa Square against us, inciting violence since June 30 [when protesters rose up against president Mohamed Morsi]. That’s more than a month of riling people up—and besides, they know it’s a lost battle if they attack the army. It’s easier to attack us. They believe that Christians are the ones responsible for what happened on June 30, even though there are others who took part in that protest—even Sheikh el Azhar [a prominent Muslim leader]. But there’s no way they will attack people like that.
How does the Christian community in your area feel about what happened?
I walked around the area after the attack—a lot of people are scared and want to leave and others are being more stoic. There’s a sense of repressed sadness. It’s the first time Sohag has ever looked like this. However, a lot of people are thanking God that no one died. At the end of the day buildings can be rebuilt, however you can’t bring back the dead.
What do you think of the army and government response to the attacks? Do you feel they are doing their best to protect churches and Christian homes?
I think the army took few precautions. They didn’t calculate the outcome of Rabaa, even their response was incredibly slow. From 9 to 11:30, the attacks were happening and there wasn’t a single policeman or army officer there. What are their reasons for not intervening sooner?
Are you afraid of this continuing?
Honestly, the Christian community can’t do anything. Attacks are happening today, and nothing is being done about it. Besides, what are we going to do? People are struggling just to eat so they aren’t going to take the money they use to buy food and to live, and use it to buy weapons. That just doesn’t make sense.
Why do you think Christians were targeted? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Muslim Brotherhood to attack army and government buildings?
Bishop Kirollos Gendi of Faiyum, a city south of Cairo: I don’t know. We’ve always been neighbors and friends. There’s never been any indicator that something like this would ever happen. I’m truly in shock; I don’t know what to say or even why they would target us in particular. It just doesn’t make sense.
How does the Christian community in the area feel about what happened?
Everyone is unhappy and terrified, especially moderate Muslims who feel that these incidents have defamed their religion.
If this continues, how will the Christian community react?
Right now we are just going to secure the church and people will try to salvage what they can. Other than that, I can’t tell you.
How does the Christian community in your area feel about what happened?
Bishop Weissa Sobhi, from the city of Deir Mawas: Everyone is terrified. The Muslim Brotherhood were walking around with machine guns in the street. No one is coming out of their houses now.
I know the Coptic Church has urged its followers not to retaliate but do you think there is any chance that some might take matters into their own hands?
It’s not in our religion to retaliate or to seek vengeance, and besides, that would only increase the violence so what would be the point?
How do you feel about the army response to what happened? Were they at all prepared for this?
They are concentrating on the major cities, and aren’t focused at all on the outer counties and villages.
How do you plan to rebuild your place of worship? Will the Church do it or will you depend on the state?
I’m waiting to meet with the heads of the Church to decide that matter.
If this continues how will the Christian community react?
We will endure it the best we can, but I’m very worried that many people will begin to leave Egypt because they fear for their lives.
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