On Aug. 7, 16 human rights organizations issued a statement expressing their “grave concern” at the increasing sectarian violence and incitement to violence employed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies since June 30, when millions gathered in Egypt’s streets calling for Morsi’s ouster.
Egypt has a history of violence against its Coptic population, and it’s getting worse, according to Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “In contemporary history, from the days of Mohamed Ali until now, this is the worst level of targeted violence against Copts and their properties that I know of,” he said. Ali is the founder of modern Egypt and ruled until 1848.
At least 47 churches and monasteries have been burned, attacked, or looted, and seven Christians killed across the country since Aug. 14, Ibrahim said. Ten of the churches were in Minya. Here supporters of the ousted president, as well as common criminals taking advantage of the lawlessness, also attacked Copt-owned businesses, houses, banks, schools, pharmacies, and even an orphanage, as well as police stations, an Army-owned supermarket, and a Ministry of Education building. Two men, one Christian and one Muslim, died when a Christian-owned tourist boat, the Mermaid, was burned.
“Christians in Egypt are always punished collectively, even if they had nothing to do with a particular incident,” Ibrahim said.
While some Copts say they are thinking seriously about fleeing the country, some in Minya are defiant. “I can’t leave my country, ever. They want that,” said another young man who asked not to be identified.
The military-backed interim government has condemned the post-Aug. 14 attacks, though neither the police nor the Army has come to their aid quickly, say Minya’s Christians and human rights groups.
Father Abdou and other church leaders said they called the police for help when their churches were burning, but the police were unable to come to the scene as they were too busy fighting off Morsi supporters, who were attempting to storm police stations. The Army arrived in Minya on Aug. 16, when it was able to enforce a curfew that should have begun two days earlier.
The lethal breakup of the sit-ins sparked serious sectarian violence in at least nine cities, according to Human Rights Watch. Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said security officials should have anticipated the backlash against Copts when they decided to break up the sit-ins.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, deny that they are responsible for the church burnings. They contend that the state is perpetrating the attacks in an effort to discredit them.
“Those who are doing this are the thugs of the Interior Ministry,” said Mohamed Abdel Azim, a former member of the Freedom and Justice Party in Minya, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are trying to create strife between Muslims and Christians so that the military has an excuse to kill people,” he said.
Azim claims that where he lives, Muslims stood alongside Christians to protect them against thugs when a pro-Morsi march was passing through the town. “No one is saying that pro-Morsi people are attacking Christians except Christian extremists,” he said.
With neither Morsi’s supporters nor security officials willing to back down, the outlook remains grim for many in Egypt, including its Christians.
“Egyptians have been put back into a position of having to choose between a police state and failed Islamist project, which was the situation under Mubarak,” Ibrahim said. “I expect people are going to lean towards the police state and we will return to a state of awful human rights abuses.”