Egypt's Christians, attacked for supporting Sisi, patiently await payback

Egypt's Coptic Church threw its support to President Sisi after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. But the military has been slow to deliver on its pledge to repair churches damaged in Islamist reprisals.

Louafi Larbi/Reuters
Bishop-General Macarius (6th l.), a Coptic Orthodox leader, prays with residents at burnt and damaged Evangelical Church in Minya governorate, about 150 miles south of Cairo, in August, 2013.

At the Amir Tadros Church in Minya, worshipers pray in what amounts to a building site. Nestled among the scaffolding, a bright blue sign proclaims that work will be completed by June. Last June.

The church in this Upper Egyptian city of a quarter million people, home to one of the largest concentrations of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, was one of dozens of Christian properties and places of worship destroyed across Egypt on Aug. 14 last year.

In Minya, mobs chanting Islamist slogans led the charge, looting and burning in response to a state-led massacre unfolding 150-miles away in Cairo, where Muslim Brotherhood-backed demonstrators were protesting the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.

Egypt's Christian community, about 10 per cent of the country's 84 million people, usually defers to the authority of the leader of the day, wary of rocking the boat and marginalizing itself further.

And the Coptic Church, representing the majority of Egypt’s Christians, threw its weight behind Morsi’s overthrow. Pope Tadros even stood behind Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then the army chief and now president, as he announced the military’s takeover in a televised address.

By sunrise that Aug. 15, the Amir Tadros church had been reduced to four scorched walls, encasing only rubble and ash. Although Egypt’s Army has promised to rebuild this and other churches, there’s been little progress. By some estimates, only 10 percent of the work has been completed nationwide.

In Minya, many Christians say they have felt more secure since Mr. Sisi led the coup against Mr. Morsi’s government.

But the muted state response to the destruction that followed is a reminder that, no matter who is in power, Egypt has a history of failing to protect Christians or bring their attackers to justice.

In recent comments to state media, Bishop Makarios of Minya has affirmed that the rebuilding is ongoing and asked for more security around church buildings. Monitor calls to the Egyptian Defense Ministry in recent days have elicited no response.

A walk through downtown Minya reveals the haphazard nature of the rebuilding plan. On one street stands a Christian-owned orphanage, its grounds and interior still gutted. Up the road, children’s laughter echoes from the playground of the newly rebuilt Sisters of St. Joseph school.

“There’s no transparency,” says Nady Khalil, general coordinator at a Catholic development organization in Minya. “From time to time we hear the Army will rebuild something else, but no one explains when it will happen or how it will be funded.”

The Defense Ministry’s budget is shrouded in secrecy. Egypt’s new constitution, passed with overwhelming public support in January, protects army spending from civilian oversight. Although the reconstruction was meant to be completed in phases, the second phase has been delayed for undeclared reasons.

Privately owned Christian properties are faring better, but most have been rebuilt with local money. Shop owners say they did not expect help from the state, but were disappointed when their insurance companies did not pay out.

“We had to turn to the people,” says restaurant owner Maged Amin. “It was a very difficult time.” Flames had eaten away at his restaurant's foundations, costing his family 25,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,500) to rebuild.

“I’m just thankful they’re rebuilding our churches, no matter how slow the pace” says Mr. Amin. "Last winter, we had to pray in a school – I could not imagine back then that this was my country."

To date Egyptian Christians’ loyalty has not brought a significant improvement in their day-to-day lives. Sectarian attacks – often attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood – continue, and the security services maintain a poor record when it comes to preventing violence against Christians.

According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a Cairo-based monitoring group, at least 18 Christians were killed because of their religious identity between June 30, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014. A further 165 Christian-owned houses were vandalized or burnt down.

And crimes against Christians have long gone routinely unpunished, whether under ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, Morsi, or Sisi. While a Minya judge sentenced hundreds of local residents to death over the killing of two policemen on Aug. 14 last year, not a single person has been prosecuted for the burning of the churches. Minya’s attorney general declined to discuss the matter.

Many of Minya’s Christian residents say they are not in a position to ask for more. “We have to be satisfied with this – minority communities can only expect so much,” says Marco Adel, a young political activist.

The cafe he is now sitting in was inaccessible last August. A sit-in by Morsi supporters engulfed Minya’s nearby central square, and Mr. Adel says Christians were prevented from entering.

As an opposition activist, he also received a number of threats during Morsi’s year in power.

“Of course I’m not entirely happy with the government’s efforts, but you have to understand, the current situation is a lot better than it was under Morsi,” he says. “Egypt is now a country that Christians believe they can live in.”

The Catholic development organization’s Mr. Khalil takes a longer and broader view.

"The problems have been the same under Mubarak, Morsi and Sisi," he says. "There is no hope for Egypt if we just rebuild the churches. Unless we invest in people and their institutions, nothing will ever change.”

Mohamed Ezz contributed to this report.

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