An old saying states that in an Egyptian village, the first victim in a quarrel between a Sunni and a Shiite is a Christian. According to preliminary figures, 15 churches, two monasteries, five schools, a theater and a Jesuit library have been destroyed in the clashes between security forces and demonstrators supporting deposed President Mohammed Morsi in Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahda squares, even though the Copts were not part of the battle.
The successive attacks in a number of provinces began a few hours after the army broke up the pro-Morsi sit-ins. It seemed that the army’s decision was made without precautions being taken to protect the Copts, a religious minority numbering around 10 million. … Incitement against the Copts began several days before the June 30 protests, and the speeches became more radical at the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in, which started 40 days ago.
There was talk of a “war against Islam.” The graffiti on the walls read, “The Christians’ pope overthrew the Muslims’ imam [Morsi].” Those are just two examples of the incitement by Morsi’s supporters against the Christians.
Isaac Ibrahim, responsible for the freedom of religion and belief [section] at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said in a telephone conversation with As-Safir, “The anti-Morsi protesters portrayed it as if there were only Copts and secular groups. As a result of this incitement, several attacks took place after Morsi was deposed on July 3.”
Ibrahim, whose well-known human rights association is respected for its integrity in the Egyptian legal community, said, “I expect the events to escalate in the next few hours. Our researchers are following the situation on the ground or by communicating with existing sources on the ground in the provinces where the attacks took place so that we can form a comprehensive assessment in the coming period.”
Official security services were noticeably absent during the attacks, which occurred in most of Egypt’s 27 governorates.
“This is the heavy burden that the Copts pay in exchange for participating in political life ... The police and the army are not there to protect the churches. Even [Coptic-owned] shops and pharmacies have not been spared,” said Ibrahim.
Ibrahim does not expect much from the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew or the month-long state of emergency that began [Aug. 15]. He wondered, “How can such decisions be implemented if the residents of a small village in Upper Egypt or the Nile Delta decide to burn a nearby church or smash Coptic shops, as occurred in Dilja in Minya province, where Muslims set fire to dozens of shops and pharmacies owned by Copts.”
As of this writing, there had been attacks on churches in at least four provinces. The most affected was Minya province (240 km south of Cairo), where Muslim supporters of Morsi burned seven churches, two schools, a convent, an orphanage, a theater and a Jesuit library. The second most affected area was Sohag province (495 km south of Cairo), where three churches and a building for church services were looted and burned.
The incident affected the voice of Archbishop Fahim of the Sohag diocese. He declined to comment on the incident, providing only numbers and facts. He told As-Safir, “The numbers are in the media, and we have said all that we have to say. ... We are tired of talking amid the events that are happening and that we expect to happen.” He then concluded the short conversation by saying, “May our Lord deliver Egypt.”
Father Silvanus, pastor of the Church of the Virgin in Dilja, told As-Safir what happened in an exhausted voice. The church dates back to the 4th century. The Muslims in the villages looted everything they could get their hands on. “What they couldn’t carry, they burned,” he said.
Amid all that, the Christian-majority village is devoid of security forces after Morsi’s supporters burned down the local police station.
Silvanus describes what happened in that “nightmare”: “The attacks began at 9 a.m., after the villagers learned that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist sit-ins in Cairo had been broken up. The looting, smashing and burning continued till 5 p.m. ... For eight hours, we tried in vain to contact the army and the police. After they finished burning the monastery, including two churches and a services building, they proceeded to burn 10 nearby houses and shops owned by Copts. ... The attacks began from the mosques. ... They called through loudspeakers: ‘Onward to jihad.’ ... They avenged [what happened] in Rabia [Square]. ... We have already lost a victim — Iskandar Tus Fathi, a simple farmer. They attacked his house next to the church, fired (two shots) in the air, entered his house, then dragged him out and killed him.”
The Christian residents of that large village fled their homes fearing for their lives. Silvanus said, “About 20 days ago, a limited number of families went to Cairo and Alexandria with their relatives for fear of the scenario that they have been expecting since the start of the widespread wave of attacks on the Copts in the village. And that’s what actually happened. ... We cannot prevent any citizen from leaving. But we advise them to stay in their homes and not leave and watch [from afar] where the events will lead. ... For 15 days, even my church has ceased all activities except for Sunday prayers.”
The uncertainty of the situation has caused the Maspero Youth Union to expect the worst. During the first transitional period under the military council, which was led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the union called for several major rallies by Copts. In a statement on its Facebook page, the Maspero Youth Union stated, “The purpose of these attacks is to turn them into clashes between the people and those groups and drag Egypt into a civil war scenario.”
In its statement, the union, which represents a large segment of young Copts, played down the significance of the attacks on buildings, stressing, “The lives of Egyptians — Muslims and Christians — are more valuable than any church building. ... We are confident that we will rebuild what was destroyed but in a more free and independent country.”