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Across Egypt, piles of ash where church pews once stood

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

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. 

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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 Cairowith 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.

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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’

Violence against Christians is not new in Minya, where there is a large Christian population. Many residents have vivid memories of attacks during the 1980s and 1990s, when a rising Islamic militant movement targeted Christians, especially in Upper Egypt. They tell stories of Christian pharmacies burned, of Christian university students beaten and tormented.

Under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, few were held accountable, and attacks were often followed by informal “reconciliation councils” that denied justice to the victims. Violence against Christian rose in the last years of Mubarak’s presidency. Under the military junta that took power when mass protests pushed Mubarak from office, there was a surge in church attacks, again with little justice for the victims. 

But many here say life worsened when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was elected to office. Islamists in power seemed to encourage local extremists to increase discrimination, insults, and attacks, they say. Most say the wave of attacks on Aug. 14 was backlash from Islamists for being pushed from power. 

And if that was the price that must be paid for removing Morsi from power, then so be it, says church member Magdy Shafiq Saad.

“They will always try to burn churches, whether in power or not. But in power, they increased the discrimination and the humiliation of Christians,” he says. “You can’t go worse than the Islamists.”

The security director in Minya refused a request for an interview, and the Ministry of Interior in Cairo, which controls the police, did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. But government officials have defended the police’s failure to protect churches and properties under attack on Aug. 14 by pointing out that police stations also came under attack, often first, keeping police from responding to the dozens of other attacks.

At some churches in Minya, police responded to calls about attacks, but only stayed for a short period of time, and attackers simply returned when police left. At other churches, including one within eyesight of the security directorate building, Christians say police didn’t respond to their calls for help until it was too late.

Constant threats

At the Anba Mousa el Aswad Coptic Orthodox church, where Atallah and Saadallah are members, the courtyard is littered with fallen mosaic tiles and rubble. The interior has been gutted by fire, the fine woodwork reduced to deep piles of black and gray ash. Sunlight shines through broken windows, illuminating the wreckage of what had once been an impressive sanctuary after a renovation finished in 2011.

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The renovations were paid for with church members’ donations, and though the building is in ruins, the loan payments are still due.

As in most attacks, the mob looted the church before burning it. Several days after the attack, a neighbor brought Atallah and Saadallah’s a brass incense lamp, one of the looted objects, saying others wanted the lamp returned to the church. It was that same neighbor who returned a few days later relaying the threat that their home would be burned if they didn’t pay 500 pounds.

Saadallah, a laborer, and Attallah, a housewife, could scrape together the money, but they fear simply paying will make them appear weak and invite further threats and abuse.

They already live with threats, like the one recent delivered to their son by a woman in the street. “She said ‘Get out of here, you Christian kid, or we’ll slaughter you in your homes,’” says Saadallah. “We don’t sleep at all at night because we’re constantly afraid they’re going to come and attack. So we’re listening at the window or the door all night.”

Thuggery replaces rule of law

In Delja, the violence began when Morsi was ousted July 3. Angry mobs burned and looted shops and homes, and Islamists there issued threats against Christians, says Sakr, the lawyer who moved his family to Cairo. On Aug. 14, Sakr says a cleric used the mosque loudspeakers to call on neighborhood residents to take revenge against the “infidel Christians” for killing Muslims in Cairo.

He and his cousin owned the only Christian homes on the block nearest the mosque, he says, and the mobs attacked both. They killed his cousin before dragging his body through the streets, says Sakr. Sakr was able to escape with his family, the family of his cousin, and other extended family members. Crowds burned and looted his home and office, as well as other homes, churches and a monastery in Delja. 

“After that Wednesday, any Christian in the area was targeted, so the calls started that the Copts have to leave this area,” he says, adding that dozens of Christian families have fled and many of those who remain are too scared to attend church services.

Those who have stayed have also faced the theft of their land and livestock, he says, and many are paying protection money. Armed men in the village fired on security forces when they attempted to enter and restore order.

“Every boy, girl, mother and father is living in terror,” he says. “And not only the Christians are living in fear, but the moderate Muslims are also. Terrorism and thuggery are the only laws now.”

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• This story was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.