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Christians fear backlash after violence

16 August 2013


After the fires: Egyptian children carry computer equipment in the burned remains of the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, in the center of the largest protest camp, in the district of Nasr City, Cairo,  on Thursday

After the fires: Egyptian children carry computer equipment in the burned remains of the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, in the center of the larges...

CHRISTIANS in Egypt are enduring an unprecedented wave of attacks on people and property as Islamists seek revenge for the churches' support for the military's action in forcing the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. The army's brutal storming on Wednesday of two protest camps manned by supporters of the deposed President Mohammed Morsi, in which at least 640 people were killed, triggered the Islamist onslaught on Christian targets.

Although there are no accurate figures, it is estimated that about 70 churches or Christian institutions across Egypt have been attacked, many of them set on fire. One of the targets was St Saviour's, an Anglican church in Suez.

In a message to his diocese as the attack was happening, the President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, said that supporters of the deposed president were "throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the church".

The priest of St Saviour's, the Revd Ehab Ayoub, was trapped inside for several hours, along with his family and a lay minister. The Chaplain to Bishop Anis, the Revd Drew Schmotzer, told the Anglican Communion News Service that the attackers "tried to get through the windows, but our steel bars prevented it". After "a long morning", the army arrived, and secured a safe exit for those who had been trapped.

The highest number of anti-Christian incidents have occurred in the south of the country. Two Bible Society bookshops, in Assiut and Minia, were set on fire and destroyed. No one was in them at the time. The General Director of the Egyptian Bible Society, Ramez Atallah, said that the attackers "demolished the metal doors protecting the bookshops, broke the store windows behind them, and set the shops on fire". He described the incidents as attacks "against the state by a violent minority . . . in an attempt to destabilise the nation". The Bible Society said that these were the first attacks of their kind in 129 years of operating in Egypt. 

The YMCA in Minia was also attacked, as were Christian-owned shops, hotels, and businesses in several towns in the region.

A spokesman for the military in Egypt said that the army would rebuild the churches that were attacked, adding that the work would "start right away". He went on to say that the authorities were "clearing up sites and starting investigations. It is a national and historical obligation, we cannot let these people down."

On Thursday, President Obama said that as a result of Wednesday's events the United States is cancelling a biannual joint military exercise with Egypt, which had been scheduled for September.

The US "deplored" violence against civilians, he said, and he extended condolences to the families of all those who were killed or wounded.

He said that the Egyptian people "deserve better than what we've seen over the last several days", and "to the Egyptian people, let me say the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop. . .

"America will work with all those in Egypt and around the world who support a future of stability that rests on a foundation of justice and peace and dignity."

Condemnation of the violence in Egypt has come from around the world. The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, the Church of England's lead Bishop on Foreign Affairs, said that the state of emergency in Egypt "following the carnage and increasing death toll of recent days is a matter of grave concern for those within and outside the region. The heavy loss of life is deeply disturbing, and points to the urgent need for resolution and restraint from government forces."

Christian Aid urged "all parties to end the violence, and work towards a peaceful resolution which will allow all Egyptians to have a voice in defining their future, and the future of the country. We call on the international community to do all that it can to bring about a peaceful solution as quickly as possible."

Pope Francis said that he was saddened by "the painful news coming out of Egypt", and offered prayers for all the victims and their families. The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said: "The only way forward is for mutual recognition as equal citizens within Egypt, sharing responsibilities and authority, accepting the diversity of political opinions and religious beliefs."

In Canada, the Ambassador of Religious Freedom, Dr Andrew Bennett, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, said in a joint statement that "attacks on places of worship are unacceptable. . . On behalf of all Canadians, we would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the victims of these attacks, and wish a speedy recovery to the injured."

Even before Wednesday's events, the intensification of anti-Christian sentiment among elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist groups in Egypt had prompted the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, to cancel his weekly public sermon and meeting with his followers in St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. The venue has been moved to a secluded monastery outside the capital.

Islamist preachers over recent weeks have been calling for the removal of Christians from Egypt, and at times have urged Muslims to attack church property. Pope Tawadros is said to have received death threats. A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Egypt, Fr Rafic Greiche, said that there was a fear among Christians that the Pope might be targeted, adding: "Since the fall of the Mohammed Morsi administration, attacks and acts of intimidation against the Christian minority have occurred on a daily basis."

The hostility felt by Islamists stems from the public support that Pope Tawadros and other Christian leaders in Egypt gave to the military when it intervened to suspend the constitution and remove President Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood figures from power. Islamists are denouncing Copts and other Egyptian Christians as enemies of Islam and agents of the West.

So, having abandoned their tradition of avoiding controversy and staying outside politics, the Copts and other Christians find themselves trapped in one segment of the polarisation that is paralysing the country. A youth wing within the Coptic Church - the Maspero Movement - called on Copts to organise politically to demand state protection.

Dealing with demands for Copts to become more politicised is one of the challenges that Pope Tawadros faces. At the same time, conservative elements within the Church favour playing a low-key part in society, as was the case for several decades.


ST SAVIOUR's, an Anglican church in Suez, came under "heavy attack" from supporters of President Morsi on Wednesday, writes Ed Thornton.

In a letter to his diocese, the President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, said that, as he wrote, supporters of the President were "throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the church. . ."

There had also been attacks on Orthodox churches in Minya and Sohag, and a Roman Catholic church in Suez, he said. "Some police stations are also under attack in different parts of Egypt."

Early on Wednesday morning, Bishop Anis said, the police and army had encouraged protesters in Cairo "to leave safely and go home. . . The police created very safe passages for everyone to leave. Many protesters left and went home." Others resisted, he said, and started to attack the police. "The police and army were very professional in responding to the attacks, and they used tear gas only when it was necessary."

Supporters of President Morsi had threatened to move to other locations, Bishop Anis said. "Please pray that the situation will calm down, for wisdom and tact for the police and the army, for the safety of all churches and congregations, and that all in Egypt would be safe."


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