Peter
Schwartzstein

Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.

@pschwartzstein

Aug 20, 2013

Copts Under Attack

“On days like today, being Christian reallytests my faith,” taxi driver Hany Girgis said, as he drove past his shutteredand heavily-fortified Coptic church in Cairo’s Shubra neighborhood. But at least his church is still standing.

Dozens have been damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of other Christian properties targeted at the end of what was possibly the ancient embattled community’s worst week for centuries.

In a deeply worrisome sectarian twist, Copts, who account for roughly 10% of Egypt’s 85 million people, have born the brunt of Islamist fury at the toppling of former president Mohammed Morsi.

“This is the Christians’ fault,” shouted Hamid Hosni, a Muslim Brotherhood follower, as he hurled rocks at the police in a vicious exchange last Wednesday.

Morsi supporters are furious at the Christian minority’s vociferous approval for the military and interim government’s takeover. And no sooner had the harshness of the security forces’ dispersal of the pro-Morsi protest camps become apparent than the churches started burning.

Christian communities in Upper Egypt, upstream from Cairo, have been been particularly hard hit.

In Minya, 200 miles south of the capital, 14 ecclesiastical buildings were torched, including the Jesuit and Catholic Sisters schools.

Police fearful of reprisals have been loath to leave their stations unguarded and have abandoned parts of the city to roaming Islamists. A reporter was told of a Christian family accosted and order to pay gizya, a tax historically levied on Egypt’s non-Muslim citizens.

Christians in Cairo haven’t had it quite as bad, but the ten-foot high concrete walls capped with spikes and armed parishioners accompanying the police detachments outside many churches tell the tale of a community under siege.

“Animals,” a passer-by muttered, as he eyed-up the congregation arriving at St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral for morning prayers. All of the women, who by Coptic Orthodox tradition sit apart from the men and cover their hair to receive communion, wore black mourning clothes. The men warily examined unfamiliar faces, searching out the telltale Coptic cross tattooed on hands or wrists at birth.

The mood was similarly somber and suspicious in the district known as Coptic Cairo. Swarms of plain-clothes policemen interrogated anybody trying to navigate the labyrinthine rabbit warren of thousand-year-old churches. They demanded ID and devoted particular attention to those whose identity cards showed them to be non-Christians.

Residents here are downbeat, but hopeful that stability will soon be restored. “If [the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies] want to live peacefully, we will live with them, but if they don’t, we will deal with them,” said Emil, a 64 year old church verger, as he admiringly quoted army chief General al-Sisi’s speech from the previous night.

The neighbourhood’s police captain was at pains to stress the intra-religious harmony amongst most Cairenes. “This is a political problem. We are all Egyptians here,” he said. Certainly many Muslim Brotherhood supporters have little time for anti-Christian discourse. “God tells us to love our Christian brothers,” a Morsi supporter called Ahmed told me during a visit to the Nahda protest camp prior to its dispersal.

But many Copts feel this bout of violence and church-burning is but the latest episode in a lengthy catalogue of indignities and grievances. Even before Morsi assumed power last summer, many Copts were looking for the exits. Sizeable expatriate communities have sprung up across North America and Western Europe, and taxi driver Hany is looking to join them.

“Enough has happened to us. The churches are closed. We can’t get jobs. Why would I stay in a country that doesn’t love me?” he said.