Egyptian authorities should take the necessary steps to protect churches and religious institutions against mob attacks, Human Rights Watch said today. Since August 14, 2013, attackers have torched and looted scores of churches and Christian property across the country, leaving at least four people dead. Authorities should also investigate why security forces were largely absent or failed to intervene even when they had been informed of ongoing attacks.
Immediately following the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on August 14, crowds of men attacked at least 42 churches, burning or damaging 37, as well as dozens of other Christian religious institutions in the governorates of Minya, Asyut, Fayum, Giza, Suez, Sohag, Bani Suef, and North Sinai. Human Rights Watch has verified with family members and a lawyer that at least three Coptic Christians and one Muslim were killed as a result of sectarian attacks in Dalga, Minya city, and Cairo.
“For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in Mohammad Morsy’s ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now dozens of churches are smoldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 43 witnesses, priests, and Coptic activists, who confirmed the attacks on 42 churches, dozens of Christian institutions and schools, and Coptic-owned business and homes. Human Rights Watch visited 11 sites in Minya city and Bani Suef, where attacks took place, and spoke to the head of the security directorate for Minya governorate.
In the vast majority of the 42 cases Human Rights Watch documented, neither the police nor the military were present at the start or during the attack. In one case, in Dalga, a village in southern Minya governorate, residents said that men had attacked the local police station around the same time. In Kirdassa, Giza, west of Cairo, an activist said that mobs attacked the local police station, killing15 officers according to the Associated Press, before attacking Al-Mallak church. A priest in Malawi, a town in Minya governorate south of Minya city, told Human Rights Watch that he called emergency services and police multiple times while mobs burned his church, but no one came. Another Dalga resident said that on August 16 the governor promised to send armored personnel carriers to protect Copts from ongoing violence, but that none came.
“We [church officials] spoke to the prime minister, minister of interior, and a military official asking them to intervene,” Coptic Bishop General of Minya Anba Makarios told Human Rights Watch on August 19. He said the officials promised to send protection, but it never arrived.
In Hadeyeq Helwan, 30 kilometers south of Cairo, a resident told Human Rights Watch that one armored personnel carrier finally arrived on the afternoon of August 17, a day after the St. George Church there came under attack.
Residents in Minya city told Human Rights Watch that in the week following Morsy’s removal from the presidency on July 3, someone had spray-painted Coptic-owned store fronts in Minya’s city center with a black “X” to distinguish them from Muslim-owned buildings. Those marked subsequently came under attack.
The attacks come after weeks of sectarian discourse by Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the Nahda and Rab’a al-Adawiya sit-ins in which speakers claimed or insinuated a link between Copts and Morsy’s removal. One speaker, Assem Abdel Magid, said on July 24,“Copts and communists are supporting Sisi in the killing of Muslims.” A YouTube video of a pro-Morsy march on July 12 shows marchers chanting “Islamic Islamic despite the Christians” while passing a church.
Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders have condemned the recent sectarian attacks. On August 16, Dr. Mourad Ali, spokesman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, released a statement that said, “Pursuant to our party’s indivisible principles, we strongly condemn any attack, even verbal, against Copts, their churches or their property.”
Others however have suggested a Coptic role in the ongoing crackdown on the group. On the afternoon of August 14, the Freedom and Justice Party Helwan Branch posted a statement on the group’s Facebook page accusing Pope Tawadros, the religious leader of the Egyptian Coptic community,of participating in Morsy’s removal and of inciting Copts to block roads, encircle mosques, and storm them. The message ended with, “For every action there is a reaction.” On August 16, the Muslim Brotherhood website published a story with the headline,“The police and the church open fire on the al-Haram march at Giza tunnel and Murad Street.” Several residents and clergy in areas where church attacks occurred said that local religious leaders incited groups to attack churches.
Sectarian attacks against Christians had increased even before the August 14 action against the camps. On July 5, following Morsy’s ouster on July 3, four Copts were killed in Luxor governorate. On July 23, Human Rights Watch called on the Egyptian authorities to take steps to protect Christians, investigate attacks, and hold those responsible to account.
“While a few Muslim Brotherhood leaders have condemned these attacks, they also need to tell the group’s followers to stop inciting violence by insinuating that the Coptic minority is responsible for the crackdown,” Stork said.