Villagers clean up the chapel in a monastery that was looted and burned by… (Roger Anis / El Shorouk Newspaper )
CAIRO — In what could presage a broader strike against Islamists who have been attacking Coptic Christians in the Nile Valley, Egyptian security forces on Monday swept into a community where supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi had in effect seized control.
The Christian minority in the central town of Dalga, about 175 miles south of Cairo, reported a harsh campaign of intimidation in recent weeks by militants who burned churches and shook down individuals, demanding protection money in the form of an archaic "tax" on non-Muslims. About one-sixth of the town's 120,000 residents are Christians.
But Egyptian authorities played down the army and police offensive in Dalga and appeared reluctant to portray it as having been launched in support of beleaguered Copts. An Interior Ministry official described the operation as targeting "wanted criminals," and reported the arrests of 56 people and the seizure of several weapons caches.
By contrast, an army campaign against Islamist groups operating in the rugged Sinai Peninsula has been trumpeted by Egyptian officials. At a news conference in Cairo on Sunday featuring slickly produced videos of soldiers and tanks, the chief army spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, vowed that the Sinai campaign would continue until Islamist "terrorists" in the vast desert region were brought to heel.
Christians in Egypt have long complained that the government is indifferent to the persecution they suffer. In Minya governorate, where Dalga is located and Christians make up a greater share of the population than they do nationwide, government offensives may be driven less by a desire to defend religious minorities than by a keen awareness that the area is a stronghold of Gamaa Islamiya, an ally of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Islamists have challenged government control in several other communities in Minya, local officials have reported.
After the dawn offensive in Dalga, residents told the Associated Press that they were ordered to stay indoors and the town's entrances were sealed off while security forces conducted house-to-house searches for Islamist militants. Army helicopters hovered overhead.
Christians became the targets of violent attacks after Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, was ousted in an army-backed coup July 3. Six weeks later, hundreds of the deposed president's followers were killed by security forces who broke up sprawling pro-Morsi protest camps in the capital and elsewhere. After that, the situation in Dalga deteriorated drastically, with Islamists holding sway and demanding Morsi's reinstatement.
Egypt has been roiled by turmoil since the massive popular uprising that drove autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011. Islamists surged to the political forefront after that, but Morsi's yearlong rule was deeply unpopular across the political spectrum, and many Egyptians applauded when security forces pushed him from power and staged a wide-ranging roundup of Muslim Brotherhood leaders.
In recent weeks, the political scope of the crackdown has moved beyond the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to include moderate-minded activists, along with academics and journalists.
The interim government last week extended a nationwide state of emergency that gives the authorities broad powers to suppress dissent, and a curfew imposed more than a month ago remains in force, though its hours have been shortened.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.