As 30-year-old Fulla Asaad and her mother-in-law prepared a midday meal on July 11, they spied three Muslim men with cans of kerosene running through the home's courtyard in their small, Egyptian town. Yelling for help, they did their best to stop them but the men poured fuel on the adjacent building-a small structure the Asaads had donated to their church. The men set it on fire-the only gathering place for the Coptic Christian community in Ezbet Basilious, a village in Upper Egypt south of Cairo.
After questioning witnesses, local police arrested two Copts, Asaad and 35-year-old Reda Gamal Huzayin, and accused them of attacking their own church. Part of a growing trend throughout Egypt's Coptic communities, local police and security forces are framing Christians while the perpetrators escape prosecution. And as Islamic radicalism spreads across a nation that plays a key role in the region, so have attacks against the region's largest and oldest Christian community.
Days after the arson attack, Egyptian State Security Investigations (SSI) officers arrested the Muslims suspects, but all three were released without charge on July 21, according to a congregation member who requested anonymity when he spoke to me because he fears further persecution.
Asaad was released, he added, but Huzayin was still in custody despite a strong alibi. Frustrated villagers question the logic behind accusing a Christian of setting his own church on fire, claiming that police collusion is the only explanation for the charge.
Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain, says most of the Muslim villagers in the town have been radicalized, a trend he says is spreading across Egypt: "The infiltration of the police and security forces is worrying. It's worrying because it's widespread. And what's more worrying is that over the years the media and education have turned Egypt into a fundamentalist state."
Guards stationed at the church of St. Abaskharion Kellini were noticeably absent during the attack, and local police and fire brigades arrived two hours after the building had been set on fire. The roof is demolished and the walls are cracked, leaving local Copts without a place to gather. "We are upset and angry and we don't know what to do because we don't know who to fight," the congregation member said during an interview translated by Habib.
One-third of the town's 4,000 inhabitants are Copts. The congregation was established in the 1970s with permission granted to conduct religious rites, but the application for a church license got stalled in the Egyptian court's arduous approval process-one that can take 30 to 40 years. After decades of waiting and several closures, the church received word on July 3 that the license was on its way and prayer services could commence. Citing security concerns, local authorities closed the church that same day and placed it under constant guard.
A week later the trouble began. "Muslim radicals do not want any worship but to Allah, and they believe that idol worship and polytheism [accusations they direct at Christianity] must be prohibited in the land of Islam. They believe that force, coercion, and converting people to Islam and jihad in Allah's cause is rewarded by Allah," Habib said.
Another recent attack took place in the small village of Ezbet Boshra-East, El-Fashn, south of Cairo. The Coptic Church owns a three-story building that doesn't have church status but shelters the priest and his family. Last year Muslims attacked the building, claiming that Christians were praying illegally. Local authorities ruled that only two visitors could enter the property at a time.
When a group of 25 Christians from Cairo unknowingly violated the order on June 21, a clash ensued between local Muslims and Coptic youth. Police charged Coptic priest Isaac Castor with sedition and detained 19 Christians until the Coptic community agreed not to pray in the facility. Castor has since left the community, and now other priests are being pressured to leave their congregations as well.
The congregation member from the Abaskharion Kellini house church said local Egyptian security forces commonly arrest and charge an innocent Christian to be used "as a pawn to pressurize and blackmail the Christian community and the church." Many of these people are tortured and imprisoned.
State-sponsored "reconciliation sessions" between Christians and Muslims are the other half of the problem, he added. The arbitrators are "corrupt," he says, and Christians are coerced into dropping charges of arson, robbery, rape or even murder in exchange for Muslim guarantees of "peaceful relations."
A similar situation took place in the village of Ezbet Guirgis when rumors of Christians praying in an unauthorized building led to clashes and arson that damaged two buildings. Security forces detained Safuat Atall, a 28-year-old Copt, and have accused him of the arson attacks. "We can see the danger of radical Islam is creeping very badly in Egypt, and it's creeping everywhere," Habib said.
Habib, a 56-year-old resident of Great Britain, lived in Egypt until the age of 26. His great-grandfather was a Coptic priest, and like many other Coptic believers, his Christian roots go back hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years. The evangelist Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in a.d. 43 where it quickly spread. Many Copts claim to be direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians because they avoided intermarriage with Arab Muslims after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in a.d. 639.
During the Roman Empire's persecution of Christians, tens of thousands fled to the desert and monastic orders were formed. Islamic conquests during the 7th century led to desert raiders, so Copts built sheltered and thriving monastic communities; desert sojourners can still visit the Coptic Orthodox monasteries of the Wadi Natroun, but the vast majority of Egypt's Copts now live in villages or Cairo suburbs where arson attacks and unjust court rulings have taken the place of desert raids.
Others have left the country, and it's often the educated and strong-minded who emigrate, Habib said. The weak and vulnerable are left behind. "I am outspoken and I stand up for myself. The fundamentalists don't come to me," the Abaskharion Kellini congregation member said. "The fundamentalists go to the weak people."
At the core of their attacks are concerns about conversions. Although Egypt's constitution doesn't forbid conversion from Islam to Christianity, the second article of the constitution says that Shariah law is the source of legislation, and as a result, most of these converts are denied new ID cards, forced into hiding or worse.
At the same time, Habib points out, article 4-3 states that all citizens are equal regardless of gender or religion. "We would like to apply these articles of the law. We would like to see that equality is really applied in Egypt, and there is an obligation. Egypt is obliged to apply the law. It is the duty of the government," Habib said.
President Barack Obama chose Cairo as the location for his June 4 speech to the Muslim world-a strategic decision given the country's historical role in Israeli-Arab peace making and hopes that Egypt might lead the Arab world in the march against belligerent Iran. During his speech, he mentioned the importance of upholding minority rights, citing Egypt's Copts among others. The region "suffers from a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's," Obama said.
But local believers say it will take more than talk to change the country's spiraling direction, and Habib warns that what happens in Egypt today could happen elsewhere, even in the West, tomorrow.