Nation & World

Christians get little protection from Egypt’s new government, but they’re too afraid to complain

Nearly three months after nearby residents looted and burned the Archangel Michael Church, Rida Gaballah, 49, one of the six people who tried to stave off thousands of attackers, stood among the ruins.

Utterly dismayed by the missing pews, the charred paintings of Jesus and the cross ripped off from the front door, he simply kept repeating: “This scene is horrible. This scene is horrible.”

The Egyptian government vowed to rebuild the church, one of 74 destroyed in the first three months after the military ousted Mohammed Morsi from the presidency July 3. But work has yet to begin here, leaving the church as a monument to the violence brought by Morsi’s Islamist supporters – and to the government’s failure to protect historic Egyptian institutions.

But Gaballah, like other Christians, is reluctant to criticize. “Of course they are doing enough,” Gaballah said when asked about the government’s efforts, even as the scene around him proved otherwise, just 16 miles from the capital.

The unprecedented wave of attacks on churches sparked outrage in the weeks immediately after Morsi’s ouster. But now, for both Christians and Muslim Egyptians alike, that anger has been replaced by a cacophonous silence, even though attacks continue. The 74 best-documented cases of attacks on churches came between June 30 and Sept. 30; there have been others since, though how many is uncertain.

Christians, who make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s 92 million population, have never had an easy time existing in Egypt, caught precariously for 80 years between a generally secular Egyptian state and Islamists who see Christians as heretics who threaten their vision of an Islamic Egypt.

The government historically has done little to protect Christians from the occasional outbreak of Islamist violence. No one has ever been convicted in Egypt for destroying church-related buildings, going back to 1972, when a parochial school was burned. There has been, at best, a single arrest in the most recent orgy of church burnings.

Yet Christians are loath to criticize the militarily imposed government, fearing, analysts say, inflaming hostility with a new regime that at least has not engaged in the anti-Christian rhetoric that characterized the yearlong rule of Morsi, an Islamist who rose to prominence through the secretive Muslim Brotherhood.

Clerics preaching that Christians were the reason for Morsi’s demise triggered much of the anti-Christian violence that followed Morsi’s ouster, though when Morsi was in power, violence against Christians was rare.

Still, many Christians are drawing from Morsi’s rule, and what it portended for religious tolerance, the lesson that an authoritarian government imposed by the military is better than the alternative.

Christians “are looking at their ability to live. They see it as better to live under a strong regime than a democracy that elects Islamists,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a Christian who is the freedom of religion and belief officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an advocacy group here. “The choice before people is freedom or the right to live. The people chose life.”

It is the kind of analysis repeated over and over among Egyptians, a fear that pushing back against an increasingly authoritarian government could somehow lead to something they believe is worse: A return of the Islamists.

“There was a national solidarity unifying Christians and Muslims against the horrible damage inflicted by the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi,” said Youssef Sidhom, the editor-in-chief of Watani, Egypt’s biggest Christian newspaper, which his father founded.

Now, he said, using the shorthand for the Coptic Christians who dominate the religion here, “Copts are terrified to speak.”

Amid such fears, there is little pressure on the government to do more for Christians. The police claim they didn’t have enough forces to protect the roughly 2,000 churches nationwide, particularly as their police stations were also set ablaze during the outbreak of violence after Morsi’s ouster.

Such limitations have continued, law enforcement officials say. A police colonel told McClatchy there are no specific efforts to go after those who destroyed the churches or to question residents in the small villages who surely know someone who is involved.

Protecting churches is not the police’s job, he said, there are bigger battles to be fought – like finding out who destroyed the police stations and locking up members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Our job is not to protect churches,” the colonel said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a sensitive subject. “We have arrested people and we try to investigate. Maybe the villagers will tell you what happened to the churches, but they don’t tell us. They are afraid. The fact that no one has ever been convicted is not our fault. Ask the judges.”

Observers cite more nefarious reasons for the lack of protection. Every attack gives the state more leverage to go after political Islamists, all with the public’s approval.

“The state can say, ‘Look at what the Brotherhood is doing,’” said Ahmed Ragab, a legal researcher for The Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies, who conducted a study of the destruction of churches and visited five cities where such attacks happened. “The state does not see it as a sectarian problem. It is a security problem.”

In a statement two days after Archangel Michael Church was destroyed, the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church, Pope Tawadros II, called for national unity and for Christians to stand with the armed forces. While buildings were destroyed, Christians could pray anywhere, he said.

“If the hands of evil kill, destroy and torch, then God’s hands are greater and they build,” Tawadros said. “Christ’s commandments to us are love your enemy, bless those who curse you, and do good to those who abuse you.”

Christians have never found Egyptian governments to be friendly. In 1934, Deputy Interior Minister Ezabi Pasha imposed 10 conditions on Christians who wanted to build a church. They included that Muslims had to approve construction of a church, churches could not face the Nile River or public facilities, and they could not be built within 340 feet of a mosque.

“A message of inequality and possibly hatred was bred,” said Sidhom, the newspaper editor.

Four decades later, President Anwar Sadat began reaching out to Islamists, who were quickly emboldened in their quest to create an Islamic Egypt. Attacks began against churches, which outraged the public but led to no convictions of those involved, Sidhom said.

By the time of President Hosni Mubarak, mistreatment of Christians had become a bargaining chip, he said.

“Mubarak dealt with political Islam with a dual policy. His security left Christians to deal with blows from political Islam. Behind the scenes, there were deals – ‘We leave you the mosques, the education system and you don’t interfere with politics,’” Sidhom said.

After Morsi’s ouster, Islamists angry by his demise and the killing of as many as 1,100 protesters Aug. 14 by the military blamed Christians for supporting Morsi’s removal.

“Islamists have a belief that I am fighting for the sake of God, so if I die I am going to heaven. Threats don’t work,” said Ahmed Abdel Wahab, another researcher for The Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies who helped Ragab study the church burnings. “They also would attack the Christians because they are weaker than the police. They can use the violence to start negotiating with the state without being prosecuted. In return, they say they will stop the attacks.”

Under such a backdrop, residents in places like Sol, a tiny, impoverished village 130 miles south of Cairo, asked the government for a permit to build a home that they later converted into a church, in 2000. The proponent of the Church of the Two Martyrs was killed. No one knows by whom and no one was ever arrested.

In March 2011, residents of Sol set the church ablaze amid rumors that a Muslim woman was in love with a Christian man. Two months after the January 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s fall, the state was eager to show it was in control and quickly rebuilt the church. It is the one new building in an otherwise neglected village.

These days, church officials won’t entertain any criticism of the government. They threw out two reporters for asking if the government could have done more to protect them.

“You are with the Brotherhood,” the priest exclaimed. “You must leave.”

The government rejects claims it has not done enough, noting that it has rounded up thousands since Morsi’s overthrow. According to published reports, one person has been charged with attacking a church.

Here in Kerdasa, the charred church sits just blocks from the remains of the police station, which was attacked just hours before the church.

No security officers stand outside the church, where parishioners still pray amid the ruins. Not so outside the destroyed police station, where a security official quickly confronted two McClatchy reporters as they approached.

“We are doing our job,” the officer explained.

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.