August sectarian attacks largest in Egypt history: NGO

Osman El Sharnoubi, Tuesday 24 Sep 2013

Over 30 churches, 122 shops, and 51 houses belonging to Coptic Christians destroyed during Upper Egypt sectarian attacks, ECPPS reports

Bishop-General Macarius (6th L), a Coptic Orthodox leader, prays with residents at burnt and damaged Evangelical Church in Minya governorate, August 26, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

The recent attacks against Copts in Upper Egypt in the wake of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi's ouster were the largest in Egypt's modern history, a report published by the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS) stated.  

While there have been many attacks against churches reported since Morsi's removal from power on 3 July, the most comprehensive wave of attacks was triggered by the dispersal of the two main pro-Morsi sit-ins' in Cairo and Giza on 14 August, which left hundreds dead and thousands injured.

The ECPPS, a liberal Egyptian NGO, investigated the 14 August attacks on churches, Coptic associations, and Coptic-owned property, releasing their findings in a September report entitled "Oppressed under different regimes – Egypt's Christians between sectarian violence and state negligence."

"On the morning of 14 August, residents of several Upper Egyptian cities and villages woke up to loud calls emanating from certain mosques to attack Copts whom they said aided the Egyptian police in waging a war on Islam and killing protesters in Cairo," ECPPS researcher Mohamed Abdel-Wahab announced during a press conference for the report on Monday.

The degree of damage

A stark example of the violence launched against Copts on that day comes from Dalga, a town in Upper Egypt's Minya governorate with a population of 150,000; 21,000 of whom are Copts.

Twenty-seven Coptic houses were attacked in Dalga, expelling 62 families as a result, Abdel-Wahab reported. He added that many of the homes – in addition to the possessions located inside them – were burnt, leading to serious financial losses for the families.

Egyptian security forces carried out a raid in Minya on 16 September, arresting over 50 alleged radical Islamists in Dalga, which had become an Islamist stronghold during the past month.

Abdel-Wahab, an economic researcher for the report, said individual financial losses in the six Upper Egypt governorates visited by the investigation team ranged from a few hundred to six million Egyptian pounds.

The report concluded that 28 churches and monasteries were attacked in the governorates of Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Assyut and Sohag, as well as five Christian associations in Minya and Fayoum.

Attacks on Coptic property were estimated to have damaged 122 shops – a majority of which were robbed before being destroyed or burnt – in addition to 51 houses and five schools. A miniscule percentage of the damaged property belonged to Muslims, which the report said was targeted by mistake.

Copts, fearing aggression on the streets, were essentially under house arrest in the towns where the attacks occurred, Abdel-Wahab said.

Two Copts were killed in Dalga, one of whom was decapitated and reportedly left on the street for ten days after he attempted to defend his home against an attack with a firearm, the report said.

No state protection

Ahmed Ragab, an ECPPS legal researcher who travelled south with Abdel-Wahab to compile the report, said that an Egyptian state presence during the attacks against Copts was almost "non-existent."

"When citizens called emergency lines, there was either no answer or the firemen told callers that they would come only on the condition that 'popular protection' was provided for them, fearing they would be assaulted by the attack's perpetrators," Ragab said in the Monday presser.

On the rare occasions that fire trucks would arrive, they did not have enough water, Ragab said, stressing that in many cases there were only enough security forces to protect their stations and that they would not come out to aid the victims.

Many police stations and government buildings were also targeted after the sit-ins' dispersal. The ECPPS report said that 26 government buildings were attacked.

Ragab also criticised the Egyptian government for failing to provide compensation for the attacks.

Ragab said some of the damaged institutions fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which has specific funds for this purpose but has not yet moved to repair the damages.

Organised attacks

The report did not contain information regarding the attack's instigators, although researchers told Ahram Online that the perpetrators' names are known among the victims, who will not disclose them out of fear.

"We leave charges to be made by the police and the prosecution," Ragab said with a tinge of irony following his criticism of the state's general inaction to protect victims during the attacks.

Abdel-Wahab, however, told Ahram Online that the attacks were probably organised.

"Most of the attacks took place in a similar manner and at a particular time," he said. "In most of the cases we investigated, owners of burnt property said the main water lines were cut to prevent putting out the fires, and that seemingly coordinated groups would create road blocks close to the property to prevent any help from arriving."

The burnt churches include the Virgin Mary Church, a 1600-year-old church in Dalga, as well as other churches dating back centuries, the report said.

The violence in Upper Egypt has been attributed to supporters of Morsi, who was removed from the presidency by the military after mass protests against him.

The Muslim Brotherhood – the group from which Morsi hails – have denied any connections to sectarian violence in the country, despite the fact that their sit-ins demanding Morsi's return to power hosted many Islamist figures who used sectarian rhetoric to threaten anti-Morsi Copts.

The National Coalition in Support of Legitimacy, the Brotherhood-led pro-Morsi alliance, were outspoken against the 16 September raids on the "free" Dalga residents, which they positioned as another symptom of the military 'coup.'

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