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Christian-Muslim animosity becomes incendiary subplot in Egypt

Scores of attacks on Coptic Orthodox churches and monasteries highlight the tensions between Muslims and Christians since last month's coup.

August 20, 2013|By Jeffrey Fleishman
  • St. John Church in Abnub, south of Cairo, was burned by a mob last week after the military cracked down on two protest camps in Egypt's capital.
St. John Church in Abnub, south of Cairo, was burned by a mob last week after… (Giro Mais, European Pressphoto…)

HELWAN, Egypt — The gunmen sped past on motorcycles and in a car, firing automatic weapons and hurling gasoline bombs. Parishioners ran for cover as bullets chipped the stone and rattled the metal doors of St. George's Church.

Adel Samir hasn't slept since Friday's attack. A mechanic, he now guards the church south of Cairo. The street out front has been barricaded. Other men, tattooed with the cross, wield clubs and patrol the perimeter amid yellow dust rising from cement factories along the Nile.

"The thugs sprayed bullets and threw 10 Molotov cocktails at us," said Samir, who added that no one was killed or badly injured. "People were hit in the arms and legs. Some of the gunmen had beards. They were hired by Islamists."

The assault on St. George's, a Coptic Orthodox church, was one of scores of attacks on Egypt's churches, monasteries and other institutions in the last week. Tensions between Muslims and Christians since the coup that overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi have become an incendiary subplot to the intensifying battle for the nation's future being waged between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement and the military-backed government.

"The Muslim Brotherhood wants to burn down the country," said Nagy Shokrallah, a fidgety man thumbing through photos of church damage on his BlackBerry. "When we take our children to visit the monasteries in the south, we tell them they were burned twice in history: the first time under Roman occupation and the second time by the Muslim Brotherhood" as Morsi and its other leaders were pushed from power.

Two Christians have reportedly been killed in recent days. Churches, schools, convents and at least one Christian orphanage have been attacked, torched or robbed, many of them in the southern deserts. Vestments have been scorched, statues shattered. Police have often provided little protection; parishioners said security forces didn't arrive at St. George's until three hours after the gunmen had fled.

"The military and police secured nothing at all," said Tony Sabry, a member of a Coptic youth union, who criticized Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, for instigating a purge against the Brotherhood that left Copts exposed. "Sisi has said he will restore the churches ... but he should have protected them before their sanctity was violated."

Many Islamists blame minority Christians for opposing Morsi and backing the July 3 military takeover of the country. Christians, who make up about 10% of Egypt's population of 83 million, have lived in relative peace with Muslims for centuries. But in recent years Copts have yearned for an earthly protector as much as a spiritual one as they have felt trapped between imams and generals.

Thousands of Copts began leaving Egypt in 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood started its political ascendancy that led to its controlling parliament and winning the presidency. But the Brotherhood's fall from power has left Christians vulnerable to hard-line Islamist elements angered by the turn of events.

"We're afraid for our people but we have great faith that God will watch over everything," said Michael Fayek, peeking out from black metal doors and leading guests past icons and silver incense burners at St. George's. "The Brotherhood wants to push us in sectarianism because they have failed at politics."

Many Christians felt protected under President Hosni Mubarak, whose police state persecuted the Brotherhood until he was ousted in a 2011 uprising. Others, however, say sectarian animosities intensified during Mubarak's final years in power, resulting in the drive-by shootings of Christians and a church bombing that killed 23 parishioners in Alexandria.

When the army seized control of the country after Mubarak's fall, some Copts hoped stability would follow. But in October 2011, security forces and soldiers — one driving an armored personnel carrier into crowds — killed nearly 30 Copts who were protesting over the burning of a church. Christian insecurities deepened when Morsi was elected president last year.

The men at St. George's said they were relieved the army was back in charge, so much so that, in a bit of historical revisionism, Samir suggested that it was Brotherhood members disguised in army uniforms who killed Copts in that October incident, known as the Maspero massacre.

"No, no," Fayek corrected. "It was the military. But the army today is not the army of two years ago. There was complicity back then between the army and the Interior Ministry [which controls police] against Copts, but that's not true any longer. We also feel we now have a lot more international support. But not from America. Saudi Arabia has been very helpful though."

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