The pounding on the door shook Mina Hanna awake. A neighbor had urgent news: Fire at the church.
It was 3 a.m. on Aug. 20.
Hanna and his younger brother, Ibrahim Saber, ran to their church, Mar Girgis Members of an ethnic religious group from North Africa but primarily Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination in the country. Orthodox, in the Sharara village in the centre of Abu Qurqas, a city of about 60,000 people in the Minya Province, about 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, south of Cairo.
There they found the back room of Mar Girgis in flames, smoke pouring from the rear door. Hanna called the fire department. Then he called the priest, Rev. Abdel Massih Obaid, who arrived at Mar Girgis quickly. He, too, called the fire department.
During the next 90 minutes, Hanna said, he and the members of Mar Girgis and its neighbors worked a bucket brigade to douse the fire. No one was hurt, but he said the blaze destroyed the rear of the small church building and its contents: the priest’s office, church records, books, pews and other furniture.
During those 90 minutes, calls were made repeatedly to the fire station.
At 5:30 a.m., Hanna said, a fire truck arrived. The fire had been out for an hour.
He has an idea why the fire department took 2 � hours to respond:
“There is hatred inside the hearts of many Muslims toward us. They consider us infidels,” Hanna told World Watch Monitor. “They wanted the church burning. The majority of the Muslims, especially in Upper Egypt, are fanatics and hate us.”
Hanna acknowledged that among those who helped to throw buckets of water on the Mar Girgis flames were the church’s Muslim neighbors. Across the country, Muslims – who comprise nine out of every 10 Egyptians – have come to the aid of Christian churches, businesses and homes that have been attacked, and have helped to fill the gaps left by inattentive police and fire agencies.
Nor is a lackadaisical emergency response universal. Christians needing help frequently receive prompt attention. But complaints about police- and fire-department disinterest have been part of the backdrop to Christian life in Egypt for a long time.
For many years watchdog groups have noted the Egyptian bureaucracy’s tilt against Christians. In 1993, Human Rights Watch documented the myriad ways the government denies and delays permits to build and repair churches – the lone regulation surviving from 19th-Century Ottoman rule. Church permits continue to require the signature of the president himself, while mosque construction is lightly, and locally, regulated.
More recently, Human Rights Watch cataloged numerous examples of neglect by police and fire agencies following the military’s August 2013 crackdown on large demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood. Already angered by the Army’s removal of then-President Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Muslim mobs reacted to the violent breakup of the demonstrations by looting and burning scores of churches and Christian business across the country.
“Security forces were largely absent or failed to intervene even when they had been informed of ongoing attacks,” the report said.
“For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Members of an ethnic religious group from North Africa but primarily Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination in the country. Christians of a role in [Morsi’s] ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them,” Joe Stork, acting Middle East director, said in the report.
Egypt ranks 22nd on the 2014 World Watch List, a ranking of the 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult. Researchers for Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who live under pressure because of their faith and the creator of the list, have noted that “Christians have less access to justice, education, basic social services and are generally more vulnerable to poverty.”