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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Coptic Church in Hurghada, Egypt. Image originally posted to Wikimedia Commons] Coptic Church in Hurghada, Egypt. Image originally posted to Wikimedia Commons]

Minya church attacks unfold with little to no security intervention.MINYA - It was the same scene everywhere: blackened walls, floors littered with detritus, empty spaces where everything was ripped out and taken.

When police forces dispersed the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins calling for the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi on 14 August, the repercussions were felt most acutely hundreds of kilometers away—in Upper Egyptian churches.

Mobs of men, apparently reacting to the dispersal, went on the rampage targeting churches, Christian property and state buildings.

Kirollos Girgis, a nineteen-year-old engineering student witnessed the attack on the Amir Tadros Church in Minya city. The mob of mostly “thugs but with some bearded men” appeared outside the church at 1.30 pm. After setting fire to a room in the church’s courtyard, they stormed the church itself before torching that as well.

People who attempted to extinguish the fire were shot at by the mob. So were the police when they eventually arrived. They left under a hail of gunfire.

A short walk down the road, priest Aphraim Adly sits amidst the wreckage of what was formerly a Christian orphanage and youth training organization.

“There was about one thousand people. They looted anything they could take—clothes, food, air-conditioning units and wood,” Adly says.

Children resident in the orphanage had been moved from their building for safety because of a pro-Morsi sit-in nearby which began on 30 June and during which inflammatory anti-Christian slogans had repeatedly been chanted. During the attack itself, Adly says that mosques used their microphones to entreat people to “undertake jihad” and “defend Islam.”

Adly says that they called the police and the army multiple times during the attack but no one answered.

On the street next to the orphanage parishioners point out a red X painted on the shutters of a mobile phone store. They say that red Xs were painted on Muslim stores and black Xs on Christian stores, and targeted accordingly.

One striking feature about the attacks is that despite their volume and ferocity, very few lives were lost. At the Minya Jesuits’ Centre, one of the attackers came across a priest still on the premises and told him to evacuate any children still in the building. In the neighboring governorate of Beni Suef, nuns caught in an attack on a Catholic School were manhandled and paraded through the streets by the mob but were rescued by women who took them into their homes.

Minya resident Bassem Makram has a theory. “This is the first phase—intimidation. The next will be killing.”

But where were the police during these attacks?

Sitting in his office in the fortified Minya Security Directorate, head of security Abdel-Aziz Qora paints a picture of a security force first taken by surprise by the scale of the attack, and then overwhelmed by it.

Qora says that twelve psolice stations and checkpoints in Minya were targeted (at the same time that churches were being attacked) and that policemen managed to repel the attacks in only six of these. Thirteen policemen were killed and fifty injured with bullet wounds, Qora tells Mada Masr. During the chaos, prisoners escaped.

“We always take precautions [to protect churches] but when the numbers are so big we cannot put up a fight,” Qora says.

Qora claims that he was not notified of the time the sit-ins would be dispersed in advance so that the Brotherhood would not catch wind of the plan and have time to counter the Interior Ministry. There had been repeated warnings that attacks on Christians would be likely following the dispersal: Speakers at the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in regularly spouted sectarian rhetoric and Muslim Brotherhood websites have repeatedly alleged that the military intervention that unseated Morsi was part of a plot in which the church played a leading role.

Bishop Makarious, head cleric in the governorate of Minya says that churches had been warned about possible attacks since the preceding Friday and passed these warnings on to the authorities—who did not act.

When asked about this, Qora again insisted that there was a plan in place but that the security forces were overwhelmed by the attacks being coordinated.

Five days after the attack and what was left of Minya’s churches and Christian institutions remained without overt police protection. Qora says that the situation has improved now that the army has arrived and that five APCs do the rounds with the police in addition to vigorously enforcing a curfew.

But far away from Cairo’s solid army presence and the gaze of the media, and protected by a security apparatus unwilling or unable to do its job, Egypt's rural Christians remain vulnerable—as they have always been.

In the Minya bishopric Bishop Makarious held a Christian inter-denominational meeting to discuss events. He spoke of a “horizontal” and “vertical” approach to Egypt’s sectarian problem—the horizontal approach encouraging friendly interaction between Muslims and Christians, the exchange of festival greetings and so on, while the vertical approach involves challenging prevailing cultural norms.

This, Makarious suggests, “will take decades.” He put the issue of Minya’s sectarianism in context alongside its myriad other problems: unemployment, high pollution rates and a serious hepatitis C problem. Attitudes must be changed by amending the school syllabus (“why does a five-year-old hate Christians?”), controlling inflammatory mosque sermons and placing regulations on media to police discriminatory content.

Makarious is not optimistic, however, about the speed of change: “These events have set [Muslim-Christian] relations back twenty-thirty years.”

[This article originally appeared on Mada Masr.] 

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