In Egypt, Christian Anxieties Mount as Muslim Hostility Increases
An eerie silence has settled over The Church of St. Mary. Mass is no longer being celebrated and armed police officers guard the entrance.
Throughout the Egyptian town of Eastern Bani Ahmed south of Cairo, Christian-owned shops remain locked up. At least seven Christian homes, and a number of their vehicles, have been ransacked, burned, or both. At least 18 people have been injured in the altercations, and police have issued dozens of arrest warrants.
A simple disagreement over a song on the radio was all it took to spark this most recent violence in the tense Egyptian atmosphere on Aug. 3.
Since the Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power on July 3rd, anti-Christian backlash has flared in pockets across Egypt. Though there have been many examples of Christians and Muslims breaking bread together and joining ranks to support moving the government off the Brotherhood’s Islamist path, the simultaneous crescendo of violence has heightened Christian anxiety.
The situation has become volatile enough that Coptic Pope Tawadros II backed out of his scheduled public appearances this week at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, fearing his presence could endanger the congregation, according to Bishop Angaelos, leader of the Coptic church in the United Kingdom, who revealed the pope’s change of plans to the BBC.
The fuse that touched off the violence in Bani Ahmed on Aug. 3 was lit inside a cafe owned by Sherif Abdel Moneim Radi, a Muslim. It was early evening, before the iftar, the traditional evening meal during the month-long observation of Ramadan, at which Muslims break their day-long fast.
According to the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas, music from the radio was playing in the cafe. “Teslem Elayady,” a catchy pop tune that praises the Egyptian military, was playing. Radi moved to turn the music off. A customer, a Christian man named Hanna Dos Fahmi, asked Radi to keep the radio tuned to the song. An argument ensued, but cooler heads stepped in and broke up the argument.
After the iftar, however, a group of Muslim men converged on the cafe. A group of Christians showed up in opposition. The tension escalated quickly as Muslims from neighboring villages, some carrying guns and Molotov cocktails, arrived in Bani Ahmed, chanting slogans against Copts, police and the military. The crowd grew to about 4,000 people.
A pharmacy, furniture store, auto-repair shop and other Christian-owned businesses were looted, according to the diocese statement. Several homes were set on fire. Clashes quickly spread to surrounding villages. Security forces, which did not arrive in adequate numbers until 11:30 p.m., used tear gas to disperse the rioters. The Associated Press reported that 18 people were injured and that police issued arrest warrants for at least 35 people.
On Sunday morning, Aug. 4, a group of Muslims barricaded the entrance to the Coptic Church in Bani Ahmed, preventing members from attending mass.
A Christian teacher in Bani Ahmed told World Watch Monitor that an uneasy calm has settled over the town during the days since the Aug. 3 disturbance. Security forces are a visible presence in the town. On Aug. 9, the teacher said, Muslims burned an abandoned Muslim home in an attempt to accuse Christians of the act, but security officers moved in before the gathering crowd could turn violent. In the meantime, the teacher, whose name has been withheld by World Watch Monitor for his security, said shops and the church remain closed.
On Aug. 6, about 60 miles south of Bani Ahmed, thousands of Islamists marched through the streets of Assiut, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.” Concerned Christians shuttered their shops and retreated to the interiors of their darkened homes. On the same day, a coalition of 16 human-rights groups denounced the “continued negligence of the institutions of the state to provide the necessary protection to Christian citizens, to decisively confront sectarian attacks, and to enforce the law by holding those responsible for the acts of sectarian violence, which have been seen in several governorates, to account.”
Father, our hearts are grieved over the continued clashes between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Thank You for the peaceful relationship Christians share with many of their Muslim neighbors. Protect and sustain Your people as they suffer the hardship of closed churches and businesses and as they live under the threat of attack. Protect their minds and hearts from fear and revenge even while You protect their lives from attack. As we pray for Christians in Egypt, keep our minds and hearts focused on praying both for Christians who are undergoing persecution at the hand of extremists, and Muslims who are lost in the darkness of Islam. We cry out to You for a powerful work of Your Spirit to settle upon the land of Egypt and use even this current crisis to open the eyes of the lost and draw them to Christ that there might be a mighty throng to stand in Egypt, lifting their hands toward Christ in worship. In the name of Jesus who watches over His people, Amen.