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Burnt Orphanage Bares Scars of Rising Religious Tension in Egypt

September 05, 2013

Amba Moussa Coptic Church

The scorched facade of Amba Moussa Coptic church that was torched by unknown assailants earlier this month, in Minya on Aug. 27, 2013. Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Gerges Abdou crouched behind a wall on the roof of the Soldiers of Christ orphanage, listening to the shattering glass and silently praying he wouldn’t be spotted by the assailants ransacking the building.

“Had they seen me, they would have thrown me off the roof or cut me into pieces,” the 58-year-old guard said in a hall in the children’s home in Minya, an Egyptian city about 165 miles (265 kilometers) south of Cairo. “They were filled with evil.”

The orphanage was among dozens of Christian buildings or churches attacked last month as Egypt erupted in renewed violence after police broke up sit-ins by Islamist supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi. Copts like Abdou say the attacks are revenge for Christians supporting Mursi’s ouster.

The nature of the assaults sets them apart from the more common religious tension that occasionally boils over into violence over such things as land disputes to love affairs between Muslims and Christians. It also adds another layer of complexity to the turmoil gripping the country.

“There is a faction that is against the state and its law enforcers and it’s taking revenge from the weaker groups, namely the Copts,” Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a group in Cairo that monitors civil liberties, said on Sept. 2. “Probably at no point in modern Egypt was there a similar wave when it comes to the number, scope and patterns of attacks.”

Boys Evacuated

The 16 boys living at the orphanage were evacuated after pro-Mursi groups occupied the square outside as part of the nationwide demonstrations.

Nearby stores had been marked with Xs, black for those owned by Christians, red for those by Muslims, locals said on Aug. 27. When the attackers were gone, one of the orphanage’s buildings was left blackened with holes where windows once were. A burnt-out overturned car stood outside.

Faced with the new threat, Christian leaders have joined a nationalist chorus by anti-Mursi Egyptians criticizing the West for perceived interference in Egypt’s affairs.

“We know the goal behind this and we must deny them the chance to break the national rank or to prompt us to cry to the outside world about the churches,” said Youssef Sidhom, chief editor of Watani, a Christian weekly newspaper.

The wider political conflict has left hundreds of the former Islamist president’s backers dead and stymied efforts to revive an economy stuck in the worst slowdown in two decades.

Small Price

The church’s position shows it still “believes in the military and that what is happening against them is a small price to pay” to remove the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Mursi hails, said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The last thing that we can deal with right now in Egypt is sectarian strife,” Akl said in Cairo yesterday. “The repercussions are quite grave.”

Pro-Mursi groups say they are being framed for the attacks on Christians to discredit them.

A statement by the coalition backing Mursi said on Aug. 29 it condemns “the acts of violence, torching and looting against churches, mosques, police stations” and other institutions. The security forces “accuse the powers that oppose the coup of committing such crimes to tarnish their image,” it said.

The security chief in Minya was replaced as part of a reshuffle of officials in the Interior Ministry on Sept. 4.

Treachery Claim

Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. Christian groups have long complained of discrimination when it comes to building churches or landing high-level government positions.

Under Mursi, such grievances were compounded by concerns newly empowered Islamists would restrict their freedoms and impose strict interpretations of Islam.

When Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi announced Mursi’s ouster on July 3, Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was among the political and religious leaders surrounding him. They also included the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Scrawled on one church in Minya, is a message for “the traitor Tawadros and his dogs.” Another daubing declares: “Egypt is Islamic.”

Further to the south in Dalga, about 30 Christian families were removed from their homes before the houses were looted, according to Ibrahim, who is in charge of the freedom of religion and belief portfolio at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Some left the village, while others were taken in by families there, some Christian and some Muslim, he said.

State of Panic

“There are no words that can describe the state of panic,” said Ibrahim. “You sit expecting that at any minute dozens of armed people could attack your home, possibly even kill you or drive you out.”

The scars are visible at the Prince Tadros church in Minya, near the orphanage. After an attack last month, the building has been gutted from the inside reducing worshipers to congregating for mass on borrowed wooden pews in the open air.

Teacher Mahmoud Shehata said Islamists couldn’t have been behind the assaults on Christian property.

“These attacks were carried out by thugs and designed by the Interior Ministry so they could be blamed on Islamists and become a pretext for arresting and killing them,” he said as he took part in a nighttime procession in Minya supporting Mursi.

Price of Freedom

Christians meanwhile differ on what the developments mean for the future of their ancient community.

“Things will get better,” lawyer Adel Hana said. “We have made sacrifices. This may be the price of freedom and the price for Christians to enjoy their rights.”

Amgad Helmy is less optimistic.

“Christians will never get their rights in this country,” said the 37-year-old. “The choice is always between what’s bad and what’s worse. The army is what’s bad so I back it.”

Abdou, the orphanage guard, said he had seen a mob breaking locks on neighboring stores owned by Christians and torching them before he ran to hide. From the roof, he could hear cries against the “infidels.” After hours had passed, Abdou tiptoed down the stairs and eventually made it to the roof of a residential building where a Muslim neighbor helped him escape.

“Will the burning down of an orphanage bring Mursi back to power?” Father Efraim Khalil, chairman of the association that oversees the orphanage, said as he sat underneath a window frame with shards of glass jutting out. “This is not a night club or a place for vice.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mariam Fam in Cairo at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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