THE BLOG
08/29/2013 02:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

Burning the Churches: Egypt's Christians in the Heat of August

These past weeks we witnessed how Egypt's Christians paid the price for the fight between the military and members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups who continued to demand that their ousted president Morsi be reinstated. Churches, schools, and official dwellings of all Christian denominations -- Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant -- have been destroyed; at least 52 Christian schools, convents, monasteries, institutions, and churches have been demolished. According to the offices of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, 100 churches and Christian institutions in all were attacked and some twice. These counts leave out the shops, businesses, vehicles and private homes belonging to Christians.

Regardless of supportive networks outside Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox communities abroad, the Vatican, or the Protestant sister synods in the West, there is no limit to what can be done to religious minorities in Egypt. They are like an invisible abused spouse. Invisible because the majority of Muslim children in Egypt grow up without ever meeting a non-Muslim. And abused after years of Islamist rhetoric spread via radio, TV, the Internet and sermons in the mosque, which painted a picture of Christians as the enemy inside; worthy to be despised and pushed from the national stage. Especially after Morsi was removed from office the level of sectarian vitriol reached new heights. Why else would angry crowds attack and destroy schools, even hospitals that mainly catered to Muslim students and patients? Or why else would they parade nuns through the streets as if they were prisoners of war?

Especially from afar, it is difficult to distinguish who exactly is to blame. Based on what I hear from Egyptian colleagues such as Karim Malak, the ability to defend a church also depended on local circumstances. In some places, local Muslim leaders successfully fought off the attackers while in certain towns groups of Copts managed to protect their church. There were also several instances where Muslims and Copts stood up against the attackers together. And in some of the smaller villages, the police (whose role in containing sectarian violence has long been unclear) could do nothing if they had wanted to, since local leaders and Islamists controlled the situation.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to deny that they were behind the violence. Whether its members committed the actual attacks or not, the Brotherhood remains guilty by extension. They are the ones who opened Pandora's Box during the 1970s after President Sadat used Islamists as a means to legitimize his own power. Attacks on Coptic property and holy sites increased. A simple rumor was enough to make a neighborhood burn. Rumors ranged from a squabble between a Coptic merchant and a Muslim patron, to an illicit romantic relationship between a Copt and a Muslim. Typically, the police appeared not before the end of the rioting, often arresting Copts whose house, shop or church had just been destroyed.

In all the turmoil it is easy to forget that this is not the first time Egypt's Christians have faced violence and destruction. In the midst of the attacks, Karim Malak commented that this type of destruction had happened since the Middle Ages and that the world would soon forget. Indeed, destruction at this scale has not happened since the year 1321 CE when sixty churches were destroyed in major anti-Christian rioting. The difference with today is that instant media show real-life attacks, with the violators and those who are being violated screaming for different reasons. The world might forget but can no longer deny and the facts of the story can no longer be twisted into a tale in which nothing ever happened.

But why is it that the religious minority ends up paying the price of national failure and frustration? The images of churches reduced to rubble that are coming out of Egypt, in my mind call up vivid memories of the churches destroyed in the Indonesian town of Situbondo. It happened in 1996, during the uncertain times before the fall of President Suharto. Twenty-three churches out of 26 total in the 98 percent Muslim town in East Java were levelled out of the blue. The circumstances have remained unclear. What did become clear is that the attacks had been systematic and coordinated. Later on, stashes of Molotov cocktails were found behind several churches, so the destruction must have been premeditated as well.

There are similarities with what happened in Egypt. According to various eyewitness reports, Christian houses and businesses in several villages were pre-marked as targets for destruction. Attackers came carrying cans of petrol, gas canisters and Molotov cocktails as well. Before demolishing the building, the perpetrators carted away all the valuables; furniture, computers, video and audio equipment, the air conditioning units and of course all the cash they could find.

Have we ever considered how difficult it is to destroy a church, a school, or similar solid buildings? Without some careful planning, the right tools, and lots of strength and energy, even the angriest of crowds will but leave a dent and some broken windows. In Situbondo, as time went by, it became clear that young men had been rounded up and shuttled into town by trucks. Someone was prepared to finance the operation since many who arrived carrying the necessary tools had been paid. Eye witnesses in Egypt describe similar scenes of pickup trucks bringing in "thugs" who followed the orders of Islamist vigilantes.

Who exactly is involved in the attacks often remains unclear. The Brotherhood's website maintains it is a peaceful organization. But again, even if its members were not physically involved in the acts of destruction, they helped create the mindset that condones them.

Spreading hatred has its consequences. In Egypt as well as in Indonesia, close observers are starting to detect a pattern of community involvement in incidents of sectarian violence. In 2011, in the southern town of Nag Hammadi, six Copts leaving the Christmas service (January 6) were killed in what seemed to be a random drive-by shooting. Coptic scholars such as Mariz Tadros have commented on how worrisome this randomness was. As they see it, Egyptian society has become more fanatic after decades of hateful rhetoric, and an educational system with textbooks that vilify all non-Muslims. The phenomenon of average citizens attacking individuals in the streets and joining in when a church is ransacked, constitutes an entirely new level of violence. Whoever the attackers these past weeks were, eyewitnesses testify of children and looters joining the instigators and the thugs.

Hateful speeches are among the building blocks that form the foundation of the current levels of violence. They have instilled in people's minds the prevailing idea that Christians somehow deserved and invited this destruction. Islamists deny responsibility; on one side of the spectrum there are even rumors of Christians burning their own churches to blame the Muslims, on the other side there are those who feel that they have a right to burn Christian property to punish those who aim at ending Islam and are behind the ousting of President Morsi. The image of the abused spouse whose bruises were allegedly self-inflicted could not be more vivid; the abused one is always at fault.

As Coptic scholar Paul Sedra found, few Muslims in Egypt have close contact with Christians. Their information is entirely based on mostly biased media. Not knowing part of the population makes them an easy target for becoming the other, the invisible enemy who cannot be trusted and is a threat to the community. The Egyptian state did not help; it never allowed open discussion about this issue, always denying the sectarian monster hiding in the closet.

So what next? Coptic communities around the world are already collecting funds to rebuild the destroyed houses of worship. The State has promised to provide the necessary funds and permits. On a negative note, easy reconstruction cannot be taken for granted. In some places Islamists have started to perform the Islamic prayers on the rubble of a destroyed church which by default means the space has been turned into a mosque and that it will involve a long fight to get permission to re-build a church. After all, typically it could take up to nearly two decades to get the required permits. Having a permit does not guarantee that the work can continue. Local communities can obstruct the work for as long as they breathe.

On a positive note, Egypt's Christians (as well as many Muslims) are ready to move on and feel far from powerless. They will rebuild, not only the structures but also those referred to by Pope Tawadros as the ones who, "have lost their humanity." In his message of August 17, he suggested that "After this crisis ends, society should truly search for the reasons as to how these circumstances came about in the first place and how people with such an extremist mentality came into existence."

The Pope's question is rhetorical since most Egyptians know the answer: it was the Islamist vitriolic discourse that poisoned minds and hearts during the past four decades. During the same period, Coptic churches all over the country have focused on instilling values that stress reconciliation and peaceful resistance. They have laid out a roadmap that is ready to be followed by all of Egypt. Now that the alternatives are smoldering ruins of churches, some of their fellow countrymen might start to pay attention to these ideas which could take the country in an entirely new direction.