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Coptic Christians helpless as their churches, homes burn

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
Scott Nelson | For the Tribune-Review
A Coptic Christian Egyptian walks through the burned and looted Emir Tadros Monastery, founded in 1598, on August 20, 2013, after a recent attack by Islamists in the village of Al Nazla, south of Cairo.
Scott Nelson
Emir Tadros Monastery lies in still smoldering ruin August 20, 2013, in the village of Al Nazla, south of Cairo.
Scott Nelson
A fire-damaged mural of Jesus is seen inside Emir Tadros Monastery August 20, 2013.
Scott Nelson
A Coptic Christian Egyptian walks past destroyed car frames on the grounds of the burned and looted Virgin Mary Church on August 20, 2013, after a recent attack by Islamists in the village of Al Nazla, south of Cairo.
Scott Nelson
An Egyptian man walks through the burned and looted ruins of the (old) Virgin Mary Church on August 20, 2013 in the village of Al Nazla.
Scott Nelson
Egyptian men sift through the ruins of the burned and looted Virgin Mary Church on August 20, 2013, after an attack by Islamists in the village of Al Nazla.
Scott Nelson
An Egyptian woman examines damage to the entrance of the Virgin Mary Church on August 20, 2013.

AL NAZLA, Egypt — Weeks ago, Egyptian Islamists marked Christian homes here with red graffiti that vowed to defend ousted President Mohamed Morsy with “blood.”

Last week, as police and soldiers assaulted two sprawling Islamist protest camps in Cairo, Christians say members of Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood organization looted and burned two churches and a monastery dating to the 16th century.

“There were a lot, like a thousand or more,” said Milad, a custodian at Emir Tadros Monastery, founded in 1598. “As they attacked us, they yelled, ‘Allah is Great!' ”

Like other Christians in this village, Milad would give only his first name, fearing retaliation. He said his son needed 13 stitches to treat a head wound.

The attackers looted all of the monastery's rooms, he said, “and then they burned everything.”

Christian-Muslim confrontations, long a problem in Egypt, turned more frequent and deadlier since the country's 2011 revolution and again after the Brotherhood and other Islamists won control of the government in 2012.

Since Morsy's ouster on July 3, scores of Christian churches, homes and shops have been looted or torched. So many attacks have occurred in the past week that human-rights groups are struggling to track them.

Maspero Youth Union, a Coptic Christian activist group, reports 38 churches and monasteries destroyed and 23 damaged; Bishop Ermia, president of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center, puts the total at 65.

Egypt's interim government has condemned the attacks. But critics say it needs to protect Christians, an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of the populace.

Hassiba Hadja Sahraoui, Amnesty International's regional deputy director, said the Islamist “backlash against the Coptic Christians should have been anticipated.”

“The tragic attacks were no surprise, given the inflammatory and sectarian language used by some Morsy supporters scapegoating Christians for the crackdown they suffered,” she said.

In Al Nazla, just outside the oasis of Fayoum and about 60 miles from Cairo, Islamists first burned a village police station, according to Ebraam, a deacon at Virgin Mary Church.

That church was later looted and burned, he and other villagers said.

It had opened in April after 13 years of construction – replacing another church, built in 1932, that was burned as well.

The violence did not end until the next day, when Egypt's military declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew, villagers said.

Ebraam said many Christians remain “afraid to go out and buy anything in the village.”

Outside Emir Tadros Monastery, a man on a passing motorcycle laughed loudly while pointing at the wrecked complex that stood unmolested for more than four hundred years.

Now its church is destroyed, the main altar blackened by smoke and covered with burned liturgy. Its domed mural of Jesus surrounded by angels is scorched; much of its ceiling is collapsed, all of its pews burned.

In a smaller chapel, steel beams melted in the fire's heat and the ceiling collapsed.

A bus and other vehicles were torched, too, and garbage bins were overturned “because they thought we have weapons,” said Aiman, another custodian.

Here and at the still-smoldering original Virgin Mary Church, the bones of saints, ancient manuscripts and other relics were destroyed, villagers said.

Inside, graffiti was scrawled on a wall — “Mohamed is the prophet of Allah,” “Islam is the solution” and anti-Christian curses.

“From the beginning of Morsy's rule, (Islamists) began to talk in the streets here in the village,” said Ebraam. “They said, ‘We will rule Egypt for thousands of years.'

“They were talking like they won the game against the Christians.”

He insisted that Christian villagers “tried to stay far away from what was happening.”

He and others said some Muslims joined in trying to protect the churches. “Our neighbors here, the moderate Muslims, they protected our houses, but they couldn't save the churches,” said Ebraam.

But he said Christians have refused to accept compensation from any Muslims because “three-quarters of this village are Muslim Brotherhood.”

Others here claim they recognized friends or neighbors among their attackers. “I don't know why they would do this,” said one man, Fadi, who lives near one of the churches.

For now, parishioners have placed chairs inside the burned walls of the new Virgin Mary Church to hold services.

“Buildings can be rebuilt, but souls can't,” said Ebraam.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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