UPDATE (Aug. 15, 8:50 a.m. EDT): The death toll has risen to 525 this morning.
UPDATE (Aug. 14, 9:30 p.m. EDT) The death toll in Egypt climbed to 281, as clashes continued between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Attacks also continued on churches throughout the country, and the Bible Society of Egypt reported protesters burned down its bookstores in Assuit and Minia.
A spokeswoman for the American Bible Society said colleagues in Egypt reported demonstrators had attacked some 15 churches and three Christian schools, setting some on fire. (See more details on church attacks in our earlier reports below.)
The spokeswoman said Ramez Atallah of the Bible Society of Egypt noted that Christian properties weren’t the only ones under attack, and that demonstrators had retaliated against other targets across Egypt.
UPDATE (Aug. 14, 2 p.m. EDT): Night is falling in Cairo, as the capital city reels from a day of deadly clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. At least 149 protesters died and 1,400 more were wounded in the violence.
The country’s interim president has declared a month-long state of emergency and imposed a 7 p.m. curfew on major cities across the country. Meanwhile, Egypt’s newly appointed Interim Prime Minister Mohamed ElBaradei resigned to protest the crackdown on the encampments.
ElBaradei’s resignation revealed fractures between the interim civilian government and the military forces that have maintained control of the country since removing Morsi from office on July 3 after another set of mass protests. Thousands of Morsi supporters had remained in the streets to demand his return.
The clashes on Wednesday came as Egyptian security forces staged a crackdown on two sprawling encampments of Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters. Police raided the camps with armored vehicles and bulldozers in the early morning hours and fired tear gas to disperse crowds.
Military officials originally proposed blocking supply routes into the camp to force protesters out. But by mid-morning, tear gas flowed and shots rang out in the camps. International news agencies reported gunfire came from the direction of security forces. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States “strongly condemns” the violence, and called on the Egyptian government to find a peaceful resolution.
Protesters in the camps lashed out against the raids: Reports indicated pro-Morsi demonstrators attacked and set fire to police stations across Cairo. By early afternoon, clashes erupted between civilians in some surrounding neighborhoods, raising fears of widespread street violence.
Meanwhile, attacks continued on churches in surrounding areas. (See the earlier report below for more details on church-related violence.)
Mouneer Anis—the top primate over all Anglicans in the Middle East—issued a bulletin on Wednesday, and reported St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in Suez was “under heavy attack from those who support former President Morsi. They are throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the church and have destroyed the car of Rev. Ehab Ayoub.”
The bishop also reported attacks on Coptic churches in Upper Egypt and a Catholic church in Suez, and asked Christians to “pray that the situation will calm down, for wisdom and tact for the police and army, for the safety of all churches and congregations, and that all in Egypt would be safe.”
EARLIER REPORT (Aug. 14, 9 a.m. EDT): Egyptian police staged a crackdown on two sprawling protest camps in Cairo on Wednesday, seeking to end a six-week standoff with pro-Morsi supporters crippling parts of the capital.
Meanwhile, thousands of Morsi supporters set fire to at least three churches in regions outside the capital, stoking fears over rising persecution of Christians across parts of Egypt.
The crackdown in Cairo began Wednesday morning, as police swept into two camps filled with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The raid came after days of warning the crowds to disperse from two major intersections in the crowded capital.
Security forces in armored vehicles quickly cleared the smaller encampment, but clashes continued at the main site near a mosque on the other end of the city. Reports of deaths and injuries varied wildly.
Government officials estimated 95 people died in the clashes, with another 750 injured. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed security forces killed some 300 protesters, but the Associated Press reported that nothing in its coverage or on local TV networks suggested such a high figure. At least one journalist also died in the clashes, veteran Sky News cameraman Mick Deane.
The clashes came more than six weeks after millions of demonstrators demanded Morsi’s ouster. Demonstrators said Morsi’s rule had worsened the country’s economy and shifted the nation in a troubling Islamist direction.
Military officials removed Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—from power on July 3, but thousands of his supporters have remained in the streets and demanded his return.
In the days following Morsi’s ouster, some Christians said they were concerned Muslim Brotherhood supporters would blame Christians for his downfall. They noted the Egyptian Coptic pope had appeared on television with other national figures as the military announced Morsi’s departure.
Last week, a statement from the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported continuing attacks against Christians “which have increased in frequency since the removal of the Morsi regime and have prompted [Coptic] Pope Tawadros II to cancel his weekly public sermons.”
The group noted attacks on the Coptic community had risen particularly in the Upper Egypt region “following allegations from several Islamist sources that Christians played a pivotal role in the removal of Morsi’s regime.”
Indeed, as security forces in Cairo dispersed pro-Morsi camps, police in other Egyptian cities responded to attacks on churches by Morsi supporters. Reuters reported police fired tear gas at thousands of Morsi supporters who had set fire to a church in Minya.
Ishak Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Morsi supporters had also attacked churches in two other regions, and had vandalized some shops and businesses with Christian owners. “We’ve seen attacks like this before, but not of this severity and coordination,” Ibrahim told The Wall Street Journal. “These attacks are directly related to the dispersals of sit-ins.”
Some Christians in Cairo say the violence shows many Morsi supporters aren’t peaceful protesters opposed to regime change. One Christian—Ramez Salama—spoke to WORLD by phone on Tuesday.
Salama—a freelance tour guide and lecturer—attends a large Presbyterian church in Cairo, and says many of the public speeches in the Morsi camps have been disturbing. “If you go and hear the speech of hatred they promote against the Christians of Egypt—you can’t imagine,” he said. “It’s all hate speech.”
Salama also noted he has many Muslim friends who supported Morsi’s ouster and long for democratic rule.
Another Christian—Ramez Atallah of the Egyptian Bible Society—described in an email the disruption thousands of pro-Morsi protesters have brought to major areas of Cairo for weeks: “Try to imagine 10,000 people camped for two months in Times Square in New York.”
Atallah described major traffic congestion, closed businesses, and residents unable to move freely near their homes. He also noted some of those gravitating to the encampments were “mostly very poor people who benefit from three meals a day … among them are all the beggars and street people of the city, and mixed in are some shady characters. So it is a very scary scene.”
Despite the pressures, Atallah said his group was working to distribute materials to encourage Christians and others to promote peace among Egyptians. “Our task is to inform people that ‘revenge’ never accomplishes anything good,” he wrote. “And that they must love even those they feel are their enemies—a VERY difficult, counter-cultural message.”