On Wednesday 14 August, police forces brutally cleared out two Cairene sit-ins supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi, which resulted in well over six hundred deaths. Violence swept over the whole country at a brisk pace, and scores of churches came under attack nationwide.
Churches, bible societies, Christian schools, homes, and businesses were damaged and burnt down in unprecedented wide-scale attacks led by what were described as Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members, supporters, and sympathizers. Such terrifying violence is considered by many as proof that the MB has been fanning the flames of sectarianism in Egypt.
Christians make up between eight and ten percent of Egypt’s eighty-five-million population. Sectarian attacks have been on the rise since the January 25 Revolution that toppled long-lived potentate Hosni Mubarak. Sectarian attacks have, however, mainly been treated with indifference. Muslim Brotherhood’s prominent figure, Mohamed Morsi, becoming the country’s strongman, intensified fears shared by many in the Christian community, and reinforced their worry about their well-being and security. These fears have unfortunately been justified through consistent inflammatory rhetoric and physical violence, such as the unprecedented, hours-long attack on the Saint Mark Cathedral in Cairo last April.
Since the army removed MB’s Mohamed Morsi from power, sectarian attacks have continued to occur. These were, however, dwarfed by the destruction wave that started on 14 August.
While all eyes were on Cairo following the bloodbath in the Rabaa and Nahda Squares, reports started to emerge from elsewhere in the country that Christian institutions and properties have come under attack. Myself and Cairo-based physician and activist Mostafa Hussein started collecting, curating, and verifying the reports as they were coming.
A wide range of attacks have been reported on social media, and independently corroborated by citizen journalists, researchers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and local newspapers. Later on, various religious press releases confirmed the reports we had already gathered. Many of these are complemented with images and some – with raw footage.
Altogether, we collected evidence that during the day of 14 August alone the attacks affected:
- Thirty-seven churches,
- five schools,
- three Bible societies,
- four offices of Christian institutions,
- and tens of homes and businesses
These premises were either burnt down or at least badly damaged. In none of these cases was there confirmation of the presence of police or security forces in the vicinity of the buildings.
These attacks happened in as many as twelve governorates in the country. And these are just the attacks we have heard about and were able to document.
Thus far, the death toll has been evaluated to three and a fourteen-year-old boy was reportedly injured. It is perhaps one of the reasons why international and mainstream Egyptian media have paid little attention to these hate crimes. Indeed, media coverage has essentially focused on the death toll in Cairo, and the rhetorical arm-wrestling between the army and the Brotherhood. Last but not least, although the majority of the statements from Western countries’ representatives condemned the bloodbath and called for restraint, very few actually deigned to mention this nationwide sectarian strife. One could excuse the dearth of coverage by arguing that most of the churches are outside Cairo and in Upper Egypt, which have not been the loci of reporting so verification of stories takes a longer time. The silence of numerous international actors who have been actively commenting on the situation in Egypt is harder to justify.
Of course, someone has to claim responsibility for these hate crimes. But who is to blame?
Virtually everyone besides the Muslim Brotherhood accuses the pro-Morsi crowds. Thus, writing for Foreign Policy’s ‘Transitions,’ commentator Mohamed el-Dahshan notes:
I want to tell you about the churches that have been ransacked and set on fire in Egypt, the hardly unexpected culmination of anti-Christian rhetoric in the discourse of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They ultimately become a soft target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters seeking for revenge. They are scarcely, if at all, protected by the police force. This makes security forces automatically complicit in attacks against them.
Contrastingly, the MB accuses the security forces of orchestrating the attacks to incriminate the group. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership has been slow, at best, to condemn. To make matters worse, a statement in Arabic which was posted to a Facebook account named FJP Helwan (the Helwan branch of the MB’s political branch, the Freedom and Justice Party, FJP) sparked outcry as it accused the Coptic Pope of complicity in the deaths of five-hundred pro-Morsi protesters during the 14 August crackdown. More importantly, the statement added fuel to the fire suggesting that Egyptian Christians “had declared war on Islam.” It was translated on the blog MB in English, and claimed:
After all this people ask why they burn the churches.
Burning houses of worship is a crime.
And for the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offense.
For every action there is a reaction.
Such a statement is in stark contrast with another one, posted on English-language Ikhwanweb twenty-four hours afterwards, which condemns “any attack, even verbal, against Copts, their churches or their property.”
But more immediate than blaming a given religious movement is the question of securing these churches and whether it was the responsibility of the state. Independent English-language Cairo-based online news outlet MadaMasr reported on 14 August that, in Sohag, residents confirmed that the church was ransacked at around 9:30 am, and no visible police presence. Furthermore, eyewitnesses that MadaMasr cites reported that a number of nearby businesses were destroyed, and these were owned by both Christians and Muslims.
The military issued a statement on 14 August, ordering “the immediate reconstruction of all churches damaged” during the 14 August violence, and promising that all the rebuilding effort will be undertaken by the military’s engineering department and that “all expenses will be paid by the Armed Forces.”
Copts have said it was state negligence in responding to these threats, and the MB have called it conspiracy. Whoever’s guiltiness it could be, the implications of the bloodshed and the past and ongoing sectarian violence are deeply rooted. Moreover, although observers inside and outside of Egypt continue to issue hopeful calls for reconciliation, two important considerations are particularly important. First, based on past history it is fair to conclude that the biggest winners from sectarian tensions and violence are those who advocate for a more prominent role for a security state that could effectively “manage” such conflicts. In a context in which Egypt’s military rulers have been actively seeking to consolidate popular support for extraordinary “counter-terrorism” measures, this point could not be more pertinent.
Second, successive Egyptian governments since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak have undermined efforts to address sectarian crimes by purporting a narrative in which the root-cause of sectarianism is often attributed (quite unrealistically) to some anonymous foreign hands. As Ellis Goldberg once observed:
Egyptians, Egyptian governments have argued for a very long time, are not responsible for criminal acts of prejudice, for terrorism, or for politically motivated wrong-doing that damage national unity. Those actions are, the public has been told time and again, the work of foreign hands, outside agents, or third parties. Real Egyptians have no interest in breaking the unity of the nation and consequently they cannot be the agents of such activity.
Unfortunately, neither justice nor reconciliation can be expected with the likely persistence of these trends. With places of worship becoming the locus of the political battles, there is a most dire need to avert the current trajectory.
List of Attacked Institutions
1- Al-Arish (North Sinai): Saint-George (Mar-Girgis) Church was burnt (sources 1 (En), 2 (Ar))
2- Assiut: Saint-George (Mar-Girgis) Coptic Orthodox Church (photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, video)
3- Assiut: Saint-Therese Church (photo)
4- Assiut: the Adventist Church in Assiut; the pastor and his wife were both kidnapped (source)
5- Assiut: the Saint-Michael Church on Nemeis Street
6- Assiut: Al-Eslah Church was burnt (source, Ar)
7- Assiut: the Apostles Church was burnt (source, Ar)
8- Assiut: the Holy Revival Church was burnt (source, Ar)
9- Cairo: the Saint-Fatima Basilica in Heliopolis was attacked but not burnt
10- Fayoum: the Saint-Mary (Holy Virgin) Church in El Nazlah village (photo)
11- Fayoum: Saint-Dimiana Church was robbed and burnt
12- Fayoum: the Evangelical Church in the village of el-Zerbi was looted and important damage was reported
13- Fayoum: the el-Amir/Prince Tawadros (Saint-Theodore) Church
14- Fayoum: the Saint-Joseph Church was burnt (source, Ar)
15- Gharbiya: Diocese of St Paul was burnt (source, Ar)
16- Giza: the Anba Antonius (Father Antonius) Church in Kerdassa
17- Giza: the bishopric church in Etfeeh
18- Giza: Virgin Mary Church (source)
19- Minya (Delga, district of Deir Mawas): the Church of the Virgin Mary and Father Abram (source, En)
20- Minya (district of Deir Mawas): the Bishopric church
21- Minya: the Saint-Mina (Mar-Mina) Church in Abu Hilal Kebly district, Beni Hilal (sources 1 and 2, photo)
22- Minya: the al-Amir/Prince Tadros (Saint-Theodore) Church (photos 1, 2, gallery)
23- Minya (district of Beni Mazar): the Baptist Church (source)
24- Minya: the Anba Moussa al-Aswad Church
25- Minya (district of Abu-Hilal): the Evangelical church on Nassara Street (photo)
26- Minya (district of Abu-Hilal): the church of the Holy Virgin. This one seems to be one of Egypt’s oldest Coptic churches, built in the fourth century
27- Minya (district of Abu-Hilal): the Jesuit Fathers Church
28- Minya: the Catholic church of Saint-Mark
29- Minya: the Apostles Church (source, Ar)
30- Sohag: the Virgin Mary Church was burnt (source)
31- Sohag: the Saint-Mark (Mar-Morqos) Church
32- Sohag: the Bishopric Church of Mar-Girgis (Saint-George) (sources 1, 2; photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Facebook album; video)
33- Sohag: Anba Abram Church was burnt (source, Ar)
34- Sohag: the Saint-Dimiana Church was burnt (source)
35- Suez: the Greek Orthodox Church (source (En), photo)
36- Suez: Bon Pasteur (Good Shepherd) Church was burnt (source, photo)
37- Suez: the Franciscan Church, Street 23, was burnt (source (Ar) and .rar archive with images, source (En), photos 1 and 2)
38- Beni Sweif: Saint-George Church in the town of Al-Wasta was burnt on 11 Aug (source, Ar), it is certainly sectarian violence but not post-Rabaa.
Not yet corroborated:
- Alexandria: attack on the Saint-Maximums Church (source)
- Assiut: Good Shepherds Monastery attacked and the Angel Michael Church surrounded by angry men.
Christian Schools and Related Institutions
1- Assiut: the Bible Society in al-Gumhouriya Street was attacked (source)
2- Beni Suef: the Nuns School was burnt (photo)
3- Fayoum: the Franciscan School was burnt (source, Ar)
4- Fayoum: the Bible Society was burnt (source (En), photo)
5- Cairo: the Bible Society was burnt (sources 1 and 2)
6- Minya: the local offices of the Christian Youth Association YMCA were burnt (photo)
7- Minya: the offices of the Evangelical Foundation
8- Beni-Mazar, Minya: the offices of Umm al-Nour
9- Minya: the Jesuit School was burnt (photo)
10- Minya: the Saint-Joseph School was burnt (photos 1 and 2)
11- Sohag: Saint-Mark (Mar-Morqos) Community Center
12- Suez: Bon Pasteur (Good Shepherd) Monastery was burnt (photo)
13- Suez: the Franciscan School was burnt (source (Ar) and .rar archive with images, source (En), photos 1 and 2)
Christian Businesses and Houses
1- Assiut: Coptic-owned shops in al-Gumhouriya Street
2- Assiut: Coptic houses on Qulta Street
3- Delga, Minya: the house of Father Angelos (Pastor of the Church of the Virgin Mary and Father Abram) was burnt (source)
4- Minya: Coptic-owned shops, pharmacies, a doctor’s clinic
5- Minya: Church-owned Dahabeya Nile Boat (source, photos 1 and 2)
6- Delga, Minya: Seventeen Coptic homes were burnt (sources 1 (Ar) and 2 (En))
7- Luxor: Coptic-owned shops, pharmacy, and hotels on Karnak Street and Cleopatra Street attacked and looted
8- Luxor: Coptic Hotel Horus has been burnt down (source, video)