A sabotaged church in Dalja, Minya governorate (Photo: Lovers of Bishop Raphael Facebook page)
Security forces have arrested 45 people in an operation against Islamists in a town in Upper Egypt which has witnessed numerous attacks on Christians in recent weeks.
A temporary curfew was imposed in Dalja, Minya governorate, on Monday morning as police and army, accompanied by the air force, descended on the town.
The town has witnessed arson attacks on scores of churches, Christian-owned shops, homes and monasteries, according to local activists.
Five churches were torched, including the ancient Virgin Mary church which was looted of its medieval artefacts, the activists added
Coptic Christians, who make up some 10 percent of Egypt's 84 million population, have long complained of discrimination and periodic violence by extremists. But the number of sectarian attacks has surged since Morsi's overthrow.
According Maspero Youth Union (MYU), a Coptic rights group, at least 17 churches have been "completely devastated" in Minya province alone – home to a large Coptic community and where Dalja is located.
Security forces fired intense volleys of bullets into the air on Monday as armoured vehicles moved into position around Dalja, 300km south of Cairo, state news agency MENA reported.
Eyewitnesses said Morsi loyalists exchanged fire with security forces, which used teargas to disperse them.
"Christians in Dalja were living like prisoners in their homes thanks to a campaign of intimidation by Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers," Antwan Adel, activist and spokesperson for MYU, told Ahram Online.
"They went to Christian houses to demand money and threatened to burn them down or abduct family members if they didn’t pay."
Adel cited an incident of a middle-aged Christian who was kidnapped and only set free a week later when his family paid LE80,000 to the abductors.
At least two people have been killed in Dalja by alleged Islamist extremists since Morsi's ouster.
Monday's security operation is the first targeting Islamists in Dalja since Morsi supporters torched a police station and drove the police from the town in late August.
The operation took place shortly after 55 public figures sent a joint letter to interim President Adly Mansour condemning recent sectarian attacks in Dalja.
At least 45 people suspected of carrying out attacks on Christians, including murder, were arrested during the operation, officials told Ahram Online.
According to Adel, 23 houses in Dalja were razed to the ground and some 18 families displaced in recent attacks.
Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, among other political and religious figures backed Morsi's removal in a move that angered the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.
"Deluded Morsi loyalists have a firm belief that Christians caused Morsi's ouster," the pastor of Minya's Mari Girgis church said on television on Monday.
In comments on its official website, the Muslim Brotherhood described the operation in Dalja as part of a clampdown on Islamists who reject the "military coup" against Egypt's first freely elected president.
Around 40 churches across Egypt have been looted and torched, and dozens of Christian-owned businesses and homes attacked, since two pro-Morsi sit-ins were cleared by police on 14 August, killing hundreds and setting in motion days of deadly violence.
The violence has heightened fears of deeper polarisation and insecurity among Christians in Egypt, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country.
The Brotherhood claims it has nothing to do with attacks on Christians, and accuses the army of plotting them to justify its brutal crackdown on Islamists.