Remnants of unity left to smoulder in Egypt’s Coptic churches

Bishop-General of Minya Anba Macarius is calling on the state to protect Coptic churches from growing violence directed at Christians. Photo: Virginie Nguyen Hoang

Bishop-General of Minya Anba Macarius is calling on the state to protect Coptic churches from growing violence directed at Christians. Photo: Virginie Nguyen Hoang

Ruth Pollard

Middle East Correspondent – 20/8/13

Minya,  Egypt: A lone worshipper stands in the blackened  ruins of the El Amir Tadros Church, quietly weeping at the destruction around  her.

Children’s Bibles lie in a charred pile at the entrance, while inside,  exploded glass, wood and tiles crunch underfoot.

The church, which for more than a century has provided a place of worship and  sanctuary for its parishioners, smouldered for days after an angry mob of  hundreds of Islamists threw Molotov cocktails into the grounds and forced their  way through the large, black metal gates.

Once inside, says witness Kerdos Gerghis, the mob ransacked the church, stealing  whatever they could before starting the fire that destroyed the interior,  leaving officials and parishioners fearful of what will come next.

The 19-year-old, who has attended this Coptic Orthodox church in the city of  Minya, Upper Egypt, since he was a  boy, made several frantic phone calls for  help, but it was at least an hour before police arrived.

When they did, the mob, made up of a handful of locals as well as Muslim  Brotherhood supporters from the outlying villages, turned on them and a gunfight  broke out between the Islamists and the police.

“The relationship between Christians and Muslims in this community is usually  very normal, and so many Muslims have stepped in to help us defend the  churches,” he says. “I have watched Muslim families cry as they see our churches  burn.”

But with courage comes punishment. A young Muslim man who helped his  Christian neighbours try to extinguish the blaze was killed the next day in an  act of retribution, Gerghis says.

It is a story repeated time and again throughout Egypt. As the political  crisis deepens and the sectarian violence cleaves further into communities,  Christians have increasingly been targeted by Muslim Brotherhood supporters  intent on revenge.

At least 32 churches and monasteries as well as countless schools, homes and  businesses in nine cities around Egypt have been targeted by Islamists on a  rampage following the downfall of their president, Mohamed Mursi, Human Rights  Watch has found.

It is not difficult to find burnt-out buildings in Minya, where an estimated  35-40 per cent of the population is Christian. In one street, the remains of an  old building that housed a clothing shop owned by a Christian family is still  smouldering; in another, a large Christian orphanage has been destroyed.

We pass  firebombed cars, while the nearby Good Shepherd School and convent  next to it have been destroyed by fire.

Most of the attacks occurred on Wednesday, as the Egyptian Army and riot  police were carrying out their operation to clear the Muslim Brotherhood protest  camps at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City and al-Nahda Square in  Giza.

Egypt’s Ministry of Interior puts the nationwide death toll from the August  14 violence at 638 people, including 43 police officers, with more than 4200  injured. Other estimates put the death toll at between 800 and 1000 people.

Attacks on churches and Christians surged after Mursi’s ouster on July 3, in  provinces as far afield as Luxor, Minya, Beni Suef, Sohag and Port Said.

In Sinai, a Coptic Orthodox priest was shot dead, while a Christian  shopkeeper  was kidnapped and found beheaded, local media reported.

Four hours from Cairo, in Upper Egypt, the attacks have been steadily  worsening over the past week, says Bishop General of Minya Anba Macarius, who is  critical of the feeble response from the army and police.

Their lack of action to protect churches and other Christian buildings has  created the perfect environment in which “crime and terrorism flourish”, Macarius tells Fairfax Media from the offices of the Minya diocese.

Local imams have tried to make contact, he confirms, but the church is not  yet ready to speak.

“First we must protect the Christians and the feelings of those who have  suffered loss,” he says. “Now we are calling on the state to protect the  churches and the army to come onto the streets.”

It is with a heavy heart that caretaker Ashraf Makram unlocks the doors to  the Good Shepherd School, his home for 45 years. His living quarters have been  totally destroyed and the courtyard is filled with the remains of burnt  furniture and destroyed cars.

“We called and called for the police to help but they would not come,” he  says. “I have never seen anything like this in all my time here – the neighbours  all gathered, both Muslim and Christian, to try to contain the blaze but we  could not.”

As we are talking, Domadios Samir, who teaches computer sciences, arrives at  the school.

Along with other locals, he confronted the gang of hundreds of Brotherhood  supporters who were first looting and then burning the buildings and cars.

Samir asked them why they were attacking the school. “This is a school for  the unbelievers,” they answered.

An impossible choice

“We had a choice between cancer and death,” says Father Youhanna Makin of the  proverbial Catch-22 situation in which Egyptians found themselves in June last  year, when choosing the country’s first democratically elected president.

The presidential run-off was between Ahmed Shafiq, a former senior commander  in the air force who served as the last prime minister of Hosni Mubarak’s  government (cancer) and Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate who narrowly  won with 52 per cent of the vote (death).

“The Copts chose cancer but we got death,” Makin says wryly from his office  in the St John The Baptist Church in downtown Cairo. “And now there’s been a  resurrection [the June 30 revolution].”

But, he says, Copts remain incredibly vulnerable to the anger of the  masses.

Egypt’s Christians are believed to make up about 10 per cent of the country’s  85 million people and they have watched with growing concern the rise of both  political Islam and militant Islamists since Mubarak was forced from government  in February 2011.

Despite the challenges,  Makin says, “we are encouraging Copts to step  outside and into political life, whatever their views.”

“A lot of people who had not been out onto the street came out and  demonstrated on June 30,” he says, of the huge rally that called for the  downfall of the Mursi presidency and led to the military’s intervention on July  3.

But in Upper Egypt, where many of the attacks on Christians have occurred, a  combination of poverty and poor education, mixed with the current political  turmoil, has created a volatile situation, he says.

Much of the lawlessness comes from the idea, pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood  during Mursi’s year in office, that religion must be the ultimate arbiter of a  society.

“What we need is a country run by law, not by an interpretation of religion  by a small group of people,”  Makin says. “For this to happen, we need a whole  new constitution, not a rebuilding of the Muslim Brotherhood constitution Mursi  forced through in the middle of the night that bypassed any verdict of the  court.”

An easy target

It is not easy to criticise an enemy as powerful as the Egyptian military,  says Adel Iskander, a fellow at the centre for contemporary Arab studies at  Georgetown University in Washington.

“So from the Islamist standpoint, when you blame the military and in  particular General Abdel Fateh al-Sisi for the overthrow of Mursi and everything  else that has ensued … the Copts are an easy adversary when the military is  too powerful to confront.”

Also,  Iskander says, Copts are relatively unprotected in Egypt.

“It is both a blessing and a curse – they live in every province and  governorate, every community has Copts, they are in every area and they are part  of a wide cross-section of Egyptian society but this means it is often very  difficult to protect them from this kind of violence.”

Add to that, Christians have literally been written out of the public school  curriculum, effectively extricating them from modern Egyptian identity and  rendering their religion an unknown quantity for many Muslims, he says.

“Most Muslims know Copts who are their neighbours or their co-workers but  they know very little about their religion, their rituals,” says Iskander, who  has written a just-released book, Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished  Revolution.

Mubarak convinced the Coptic community that the only way to exist safely in  Egypt was have the protection of “secular” state, and “with that came  authoritarianism”.

Deepening the isolation of many Coptic Egyptians was the stance of the former  Pope Shenouda, who died in March last year, he says.

The pope monopolised every aspect of Coptic life, from politics to social  services and leisure activities, corralling many believers within the strict  confines of the church.

The end result, he says, is that Copts are “drastically and remarkably  under-represented in political life and in almost every public vocation – arts,  music, sports – they are practically invisible.”

A critical juncture in the political awakening of the Coptic community came  in October 2011 with the incident that is now known as the Maspero Massacre.

Twenty-five people died and more than 320 were injured when a Coptic protest  against the failure of the government to investigate an attack on a church was  overrun.

Egyptian soldiers drove armoured personnel carriers into the crowds of  protesters, dragging some under the wheels in scenes of terrible carnage.

To many it was the first time the military, traditionally seen as the  protector of the Coptic community, had deserted them.

“It put the church in a very awkward position where they either had to come  out and condemn the most powerful institution in Egypt – the military – or sit  in silence,” Iskander says.

“The anger of the community could not be contained … the Coptic masses were  moving and the church was barely keeping up.”

The new leader, Pope Tawadros, is   younger and more perceptive than his  predecessor,   Iskander says, in a comment echoed by many interviewed by Fairfax  Media for this article.

Even though Pope Tawadros, along with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam  of Al Azhar, the most important Islamic institution in Egypt, publicly supported  Sisi in his removal of Mursi from the presidency, he has in general taken a step  back politically, he says.

“Practically every institution has had a head-on collision with the  Brotherhood,” says Iskander, and in this case, Christians have paid dearly.

For author and satirist Moheb Samir, the idea that everything in Egypt is  seen through the prism of religion is part of the problem.

“A fight between a Muslim and a Christian who are both selling vegetables  becomes a fight between a Muslim and a Christian, instead of a fight between  vegetable sellers,” says the 32-year-old over a cappuccino in a cafe overlooking  the Nile in the middle-class Cairo suburb of Zamalek.

It is a long way from his family home of Mallawi, south of Minya, where he  says relations between the religions began to fracture years ago, and have only  worsened in the past two years.

Samir uses humour to write about the differences between religions, in the  hope that by gently dispelling myths about Muslims (that they wear no underwear  under their robes or abayas) and Christians (that in one month of scandalous “fun” everybody kisses everybody), the two can live more harmoniously.

“When you actually examine the rumours, you realise that we really do not  know each other very well at all,” Samir says.

Ultimately, Copts cannot “just live inside the walls of the church”.

To rebuild a new Egypt, he says, people must work on the relationship between  the two faiths until it reaches “a good place where everyone feels that they can  claim their rights as Egyptian citizens”.