RELIGION
08/16/2013 05:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2013

Egyptian Churches Burned, Attacked As Religious Leaders Call On Prayers For Peace

Human rights groups decried reported attacks and torchings targeting dozens of churches in Egypt amid a mounting death toll as fighting between supporters and opponents of ousted President Mohammed Morsi continued Friday.

It's unclear how many churches have been affected during violence that has left more than 600 dead, but several non-governmental agencies and international media reports have cited at least 50 church attacks in cities including Cairo, Alexandria, Minya and Suez. Many churches have been burned to the ground.

Much of the violence has been against Copts, a religious minority that represents about 10 percent of the 84 million people in Egypt. Attacks against Anglican and Catholic churches as well as Christian schools also have been reported.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for a "day of rage" on Friday after government forces killed hundreds of its pro-Morsi demonstrators and injured thousands this week, have denied involvement with the attacks on churches. Coptic rights groups and U.S.-based monitoring organizations have questioned that claim.

Religious freedom issues for Christians and minority groups in Egypt have arisen frequently in recent years, in particular since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011. According to reports from Egypt, some suspect that attacks against Copts in particular could be retaliation against the church's leader, Pope Tawadros II, who supported Morsi's overthrow.

On Friday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the Egyptian government to crack down on religious targeting.

“The level of violence against Coptic Christians, their property and businesses is unprecedented in modern Egypt, both in its scope and the number of churches and structures attacked,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert George. "This could portend even worse violence ahead if the situation is not brought under control. Assaulting religious minorities is not a legitimate form of protest against government action."

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a United Kingdom-based group, also expressed concern. The violent breakups of pro-Morsi protests this week and "the excessive loss of lives will only serve to polarise Egyptian society even further," said Daniel Sinclair, a spokesman for the organization, which advocates with international governments on behalf of religious minorities.

"CSW is also deeply concerned at the unwarranted and continuing targeting of the Coptic community. We urge the government to ensure comprehensive security to all Egyptians, regardless of their religion,” he said.

In the U.S., home to about 200,000 Copts, several Coptic churches announced services to pray for the violence in Egypt to stop. At St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in Jersey City, N.J., worshippers gathered for an urgent meeting Thursday and for a divine liturgy service on Friday morning to pray for peace in Egypt. In California, Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles released a statement calling for "all the people of the church to unite in prayers and fasting."

"What is happening against innocent Copts is the result of the suffering of Christians for many decades of hate speech and incitement against them and the repeated attacks on their lives and their churches and their property with the inability of the consecutive governments to provide them with security, safety, and the rights of citizenship," the bishop said. "We are confident that the people of Egypt, both Muslims and Christians, can come together against the evil forces of terrorism."

In Suez, the Anglican Bishop of Egypt, the Rev. Mouneer Anis, wrote in an open letter this week that St. Saviour’s Anglican church was targeted with "stones and Molotov cocktails." Anis asked readers to "please pray and ask others to pray." The request has spread across Anglican media, with churches worldwide calling for prayers.

"Please pray that the situation will calm down, for wisdom and tact for the police and the army, for the safety of all churches and congregations, and that all in Egypt would be safe," wrote Anis. "May the Lord bless you!"

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According to a statement by the Vatican press office, Pope Francis "continues to follow with growing concern the serious news coming from Egypt and continues to pray for end to violence, and that the parties choose the path of dialogue and reconciliation."

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt also released a statement:

The Coptic orthodox church of Egypt is following closely the unfortunate incidences occurring in our nation Egypt and confirms its strong stance with the Egyptian law enforcement, the armed forces, and all of the institutions of the Egyptian people in its confrontation of the violent armed organizations, dark terrorists, both internal and external, the attacks on the government offices as well as our peaceful churches which are terrorizing our citizens both Coptic and Muslim.

These actions stand against all religions, morality, and humanity. We commend the stance of the friendly and loyal countries who understand the nature of these turns of events and we strongly denounce the erroneous reporting that is being broadcasted in the western media. We invite them to review the actual events subjectively instead of legitimizing these bloody terrorist organizations and all its affiliations with international support and political protection while they are attempting to spread devastation and destruction in our dear nation. We only request that the international and western media please report an valid account of the events with accuracy, truth, and honesty.

We send our condolences for all the victims and martyrs of duty that gave their lives, and we pray for the recovery of all the injured and afflicted. We persevere in our strong national unity and repulse any attempts to polarize our nation into a secular conflict. We absolutely reject any complete or even partial foreign interference in the internal national affairs of Egypt and as the hands of evil are extended to burn, kill and destroy; but the hands of God are nearer to protect, strengthen, and build. We have full confidence in the divine intervention that will navigate the Egyptian people in the delicate time of our history to a better tomorrow and a brighter future that will be filled with justice, peace, and democracy that the people of the Nile Valley deserve.

Long live Egypt, free and proud.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt

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