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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Egyptian Police Failed to Defend Churches, Rights Group Says

A Human Rights Watch video report on recent Islamist attacks on Egyptian churches and the failure of the security forces to protect Christian property.

As my colleague Kareem Fahim reported from Nazla, Egypt, dozens of churches and other facilities connected to Egypt’s Christian minority have been attacked and burned in the last seven days by Islamists seeking revenge for the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and a violent government crackdown that has left hundreds of his supporters dead.

The country’s security forces, which have taken center stage in Egyptian political life in recent weeks, have made little effort to protect churches and other Christian property, leaving Christians in many parts of Egypt to fend for themselves. A majority of the attacks have happened in Upper Egypt, the country’s poorer and more conservative southern and central regions, which have historically been important centers of both Egyptian Christianity and Islamist extremism.

Activists and bloggers have posted witness accounts of the sectarian attacks online, and on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a video report that documented what it called “simultaneous” attacks on churches across the country on Aug. 14 â€" the day the Egyptian security forces violently dispersed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, killing more than 600 people. The group criticized the security forces for failing to defend the ransacked churches, saying that the police were not present at the churches before the attacks began and failed to respond to Christians’ calls for help.

“Muslim Brotherhood activists and other Islamists have insinuated a direct link between Coptic activism and the removal of former President Morsi in early July,” Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the video. Later, he added, “In the vast majority of the cases of attacks on churches that Human Rights Watch documented, security forces were not present at the start of the attack and did not come to the aid of the churches during the attack.”

Christians make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people and have long complained of prejudice at the hands of the Muslim majority, as well as official indifference to their plight. Sectarian attacks have become more common since the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and many Christians feared for their well-being during Mr. Morsi’s one-year tenure. Mr. Morsi reneged on a campaign promise to appoint a Christian vice president and failed to halt an hours-long attack in April on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope.

In addition to attacking churches, mobs ransacked and burned a range of other buildings affiliated with the Christian community last week, including a Jesuit school and an orphanage in the city of Minya. They also targeted a tourist restaurant on a boat on the Nile, killing two employees who had hidden in a bathroom.

Evan Hill, a staff writer at Al Jazeera America, visited Minya, an Upper Egyptian city with a large Christian population, on Monday and posted pictures to Twitter of the Amir Tadros Church, which he said was the first to be burnt in the city.

My colleague Mr. Fahim reported that a mob destroyed several facilities owned by the Church of the Virgin Mary in the village of Nazla, southwest of Cairo, including a computer lab, a wedding hall and a school that had only opened last April after local Christians spent 13 years saving money to build them.

“In most of these attacks that we have documented, hundreds of men came armed with guns and, in some cases, Molotov cocktails and sticks,” Mr. Coogle said in the Human Rights Watch video. “They broke in, they came in, they looted, they destroyed and, for many of the churches, they burned them to the ground.”

One young Christian man interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the burnt-out husk of his local church said that there was a police station 20 or 30 yards down the road, but that as a mob descended on the church, no one came to defend it.

“Not even the fire service came to put out the fire,” said the young man, Philimon Sameer. “People in the neighborhood helped us put it out.”

In the face of such intense sectarian animosity, and with scant protection from the state, Egypt’s Christians now face the daunting prospect of being caught in the crossfire between the military-backed transitional government and Islamist supporters of Mr. Morsi. A representative of the Maspero Youth Union, a Christian group, spoke to The Times about the scope of the week’s violence and the peril in which his community finds itself.

A Coptic Christian group, the Maspero Youth Union, recorded at least six deaths and the destruction of at least 38 churches, as well as attacks on at least 23 more. An activist with the group, Beshoy Tamry, primarily blamed Islamist leaders for “charging their followers with hate” and trying to destabilize the country by attacking its weakest citizens.

The government, though, was hardly blameless, he said.

“I think the state wasn’t serious about protecting churches,” Mr. Tamry said. “They know who is going to do what, especially in Minya. The attacks have happened before.”