Authorities in Cairo have imposed a strict curfew in the aftermath of massive riots between Coptic Christians and police on Sunday that killed 25 and wounded 400 more. The Copts were protesting the destruction of one of their churches in the southern province of Aswan on October 1 — a crime that the Copts say the police are ignoring. Although the demonstration began peacefully, witnesses report that gangs of plainclothes thugs attacked the marchers, which then started the melee. The police moved in and opened fire on some marchers while running over others with armored cars.
The violence continued into Monday with Copts at a local hospital trying to get in to see their injured loved ones throwing stones at police. The unrest spread to other neighborhoods and once again, police moved in to get between the sects.
The church attack and the harsh crackdown by security forces highlight the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. It is part of a region-wide persecution of Christians taking place since the so-called “Arab Spring” began in nations from the Sudan to Iraq, to Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and the Gulf states. Hundreds of churches have been torched, scores of Christians have been murdered, and authorities are allowing fundamentalist Muslims to carry out these attacks with impunity.
In Egypt, state run press has actually encouraged the attacks. The Washington Post reports that “[b]roadcasters called on ‘honest Egyptians’ to take to the streets to defend the military from what anchors described as Coptic Christian assailants, a call that appeared to resonate with Egyptians who thronged downtown wielding clubs and chanting pro-Islamic slogans.”
The prime minister has promised an investigation into the violence, setting up a cabinet level panel to look into the causes. But as the Washington Post reports: “a growing body of evidence, including video footage and eyewitness reports, suggest that military forces opened fire on unarmed protesters and deliberately drove hulking armored vehicles into crowds of civilians.”
The proximate cause of the riot — the burning of the Coptic church in Aswan — is instructive as to what has happened to the Copts since the fall of Mubarak. Raymond Ibrahim, writing at the Middle East Forum, details the circumstances surrounding the church burning and shows what the Copts are up against.
One hundred year old St. George church was run down and dilapidated so the Coptic community petitioned the local government to refurbish it. The local council agreed and signed off on the design.
This didn’t sit well with the Muslims, as Ibrahim reports:
It was not long before local Muslims began complaining, making various demands, including that the church be devoid of crosses and bells-even though the permit approved them-citing that “the Cross irritates Muslims and their children.”
Coptic leaders had no choice but to acquiesce, “pointing to the fact that the church was rebuilt legally, and any concessions on the part of the church was done for the love for the country, which is passing through a difficult phase.”
Acquiescence breeds more demands: Muslim leaders next insisted that the very dome of the church be removed-so that the building might not even resemble a church-and that it be referred to as a “hospitality home.” Arguing that removal of the dome would likely collapse the church, the bishop refused.
The rest you can guess. On September 30, “some three thousand Muslims rampaged the church, torched it, and demolished the dome; flames from the wreckage burned nearby Coptic homes, which were further ransacked by rioting Muslims.” Predictably, the Governor of Aswan blamed the Christians for the violence, pointing out that the Copts were building the roof of the church 3 meters too high. “Copts made a mistake and had to be punished, and Muslims did nothing but set things right, end of story,” said the governor.
Coptic Christians were second class citizens under the Mubarak regime, but their churches were protected and radical Islamists were reined in. But since the “Arab Spring,” the authorities have turned a blind eye as Muslims have run wild, burning churches, murdering Christians, and rampaging through Christian communities.
According to the Associated Press, here’s a partial list of attacks on Copts since the beginning of 2011:
- A New Year church attack left 23 dead.
- On February 23, a Coptic priest was found murdered. The assailants reportedly shouted “Allahu-Akbar” upon leaving the dead priest’s house.
- In March, a Muslim-Christian love affair led to the burning of a church south of Cairo. When Copts protested the church attack, a mob of Muslims wielding knives and clubs attacked killing 13 and injuring 140.
- In April, thousands of Muslims in Qena protested the appointment of a Coptic governor. The authorities caved in and appointed a Muslim.
- In May, another church was burned, this time in Cairo, by a mob angered over another Christian-Muslim love affair. Twelve were killed.
There have been no prosecutions relating to any of these attacks. In fact, as Ibrahim reports, “Even if sometimes the most rabid church-destroying Muslims get ‘detained,’ it is usually for show, as they are released in days, hailed back home as heroes.”
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