Egypt’s Copts reel from sectarian violence

More than 30 Christian churches have been burned recently, further stoking instability in politically polarised Egypt.

egypt priest [D. Parvaz al jazeera]
Priest Buktor Saad Ghatas said attacks on churches aim to destroy Egypt's heritage [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Kafr Hakim, Egypt – Tension built throughout the day on August 14 in this village of 50,000 25km north of Giza.

Angry that the church was not siding with deposed president Mohamed Morsi, whose supporters were being violently evacuated from two sit-ins in Cairo, a crowd of Morsi supporters marched around the village, circling the homes of Christians and stopping at the Virgin Mary church to chant anti-Christian slogans.

They did the same following afternoon prayers, and by the evening, they had started throwing rocks at the church, breaking its windows.

Buktor Saad Ghatas, 52, the priest at that church, said that roughly 300 mostly local men stormed the church, setting fire to the first two floors, breaking and looting the ceremonial hall and offices.

Ghatas lives next door to the church so he saw and heard most of what he described as “ferocious aggression” on the village’s population of roughly 300 Christians. Coptic Christians comprise about ten percent of Egypt’s population. 

The attackers, he said, “want to create a sectarian conflict and destroy the country’s heritage”.

“They want to draw us into [violent] evil acts,” Ghatas told Al Jazeera, adding that most local residents support the Christian community. “Out of 50,000, you will find maybe1,000 that are like this – the rest are peaceful,” he said of his Muslim neighbours.

Escalation of attacks

The country’s Coptic Christian community has paid a particularly high price during recent violence.

According to Human Rights Watch, attacks on Christians in Egypt have increased since the ouster of Morsi, which his supporters label a “coup” supported by the Coptic community.

This isn’t the first time Egypt’s Coptic minority has been targeted, said Mina Thabet, a 24-year-old Christian, but the past seven weeks of attacks constitute “a new level of violence against us”.

The violence started escalating on July 1, he said, first in Minya and then in Delga, a nearby village. In Luxor, four people, including a friend of Thabet’s, were beaten to death.

There are varying numbers on precisely how many churches have been attacked, and the tally kept by Thabet’s group, the Maspero Youth Union, is grim.

Since sit-ins held in support of deposed president Mohamed Morsi were violently cleared on Wednesday, attacks targeting Christians in eight governorates have left at least six people dead and seven kidnapped.

Additionally, Thabet said 38 churches were “completely destroyed”, 23 were left partially damaged; 58 houses, 85 shops, 16 pharmacies, three hotels, 75 cars and buses belonging to Christians were also burned and looted.

“That’s only since the removal of the sit-in; all in three days,” said Thabet, who said the Coptic community was “not supporting the army,” in the June 30 protests. “We were supporting the state of Egypt,” he said. “But it seems we are the victims of every regime – we are paying the price of every change.”

Who to blame?

Thabet blamed “members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups” for the attacks on Copts.

“They all have the same ideas – radical ideas, hate and a tendency to violence,” he said.

Issac Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, echoed Thabet’s view that Morsi supporters from the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are “promoting sectarian aggression”. While post-June-30 attacks on the Christian community were expected, he said, they were “not expected with such ferocity or in the numbers of burned churches”.

These kinds of systematic attacks on Christian institutions haven’t been seen in Egypt for 330 years, Ibrahim said.

While many Christians blame the Muslim Brotherhood for sectarian violence, some within the Coptic community say that it’s not Islamist groups, but “thugs” who are attacking them.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood blames the government.

“We blame security authorities for all these atrocities,” said Alaa Mostafa, spokesperson for the Brotherhood, adding that there are several noted members of the Coptic Christian community who have shown their support for the “anti-coup” movement – those opposed to the overthrow of Morsi.

“So all of these allegations [blaming the Brotherhood] are lies that are inciting division and deceiving Egyptians” said Mostafa said, referencing an official statement by the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Taking Islamic Sharia as our base and applying its principles, we strongly condemn any attack – even verbal – on churches and on Coptic property,” reads part of the statement. “This holds true whether or not Coptic leaders joined in or supported the July 3 [the day Morsi was forced to step down] coup for whatever reason.”

Demanding protection

Domestic and international rights groups have accused Egyptian security forces of failing to protect Christians from attacks.

“What I see is Coptics attacked in eight different governorates in 72 hours, and still, we have no secure feeling in Upper Egypt,” said Thabet, adding that he believes the military is doing its best with the “many pressures on the Egyptian administration”.

Still, Thabet said that he is not merely asking for protection from the authorities but “demanding” it.

Ghatas, too, does not criticise local police for not responding to the attack on the Virgin Mary church in Kafr Hakim, as the nearest police station was attacked on that same day.

Despite deep divisions in Egypt, there are some scenes reminiscent of Tahrir Square during 2011 when Christians joined arms to protect Muslims praying during the uprising that toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak.

Thabet describes how Muslims rushed from a nearby mosque to protect the Ezbet el-Nakhl church in Cairo when it came under attack on August 15; in Kafr Hakim some Muslims and Christians alike rushed to save the church.

“These are not Muslims,” said Gommaa Ghali of the men who attacked the Virgin Mary church.

“Here, we go to Christian weddings, they come to our weddings,” said the 32-year-old cafe owner who was among those who rushed to put the fire out at the church.

“Our religion is peaceful; we are moderates.”

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Source: Al Jazeera