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ATTACKED: A building connected to a church burns in the Egyptian city of Minya on Aug. 14.
AFP/Getty Images
ATTACKED: A building connected to a church burns in the Egyptian city of Minya on Aug. 14.

Egypt burns

Egypt | As the military meets a violent Muslim Brotherhood, an ancient civilization that includes Egypt's Christians endures a brutal backlash

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 7, 2013

Shortly before devastating clashes exploded across Cairo and killed hundreds of people in mid-August, workers at the Bible Society of Egypt in Assiut noticed something strange: Someone had scrawled the word “Islamic” on most of the Christian-owned businesses in the town more than 200 miles south of Cairo.

A few days later, Egyptian security forces in Cairo raided two sprawling camps filled with thousands of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The ensuing violence has killed about 1,000 people, including hundreds of demonstrators from the camps. Mosques became makeshift morgues, and mourners searched for family among blood-soaked corpses. 

Within hours, an Islamist mob swept through downtown Assiut (also spelled Asyut) and set fire to the Christian-owned businesses tagged a few days earlier. When they reached the Bible Society’s storefront, assailants broke a security door, smashed a window, and burned the store to the ground. 

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Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt, said the attacks appear preplanned, since the crowds arrived shortly after the Cairo raids and burned the marked buildings. 

Indeed, during the first three days after Egypt’s deadliest clashes in decades, Islamists had attacked, looted, and torched dozens of church buildings, Christian-owned businesses, and Christian schools across Egypt. At the Bible Society’s store in Minya, assailants stole cash from a safe, torched the building, and built a bonfire with Bibles.

Islamists also attacked police stations and burned government buildings. Dozens of police officers died in the clashes. Atallah noted demonstrators had promised they would wreak havoc if police raided the Cairo encampments. “And they did. They went on a rampage,” he said. “They burned Egypt.”

Egypt’s burning is more than the latest installment in the country’s ongoing political revolution: The recent chaos reveals a defining battle for the soul of the largest country in the Middle East. The lines are stark between those fiercely devoted to an Islamist rule and those dedicated to broader freedoms, including the already tenuous religious liberty in a nation with the largest number of Christians in the Arab world. 

The roots of the current crisis began more than two years ago when millions of Egyptians demanded the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

A year later, many Egyptians worried when Mohamed Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—narrowly won the country’s first free presidential elections in decades. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly 50 percent of the seats in Parliament. 

Disillusionment developed quickly: Food prices spiked, gasoline supplies plummeted, and unemployment rose. By last November, Morsi had fast-tracked a controversial constitution with Islamist rules, and decreed sweeping powers for himself. He gave his own decisions immunity from judicial review. 

By June of this year, millions of demonstrators—including former Morsi supporters and secularists, moderate Muslims, and many Christians—demanded his ouster. The Egyptian military announced Morsi’s removal on July 3, and appointed an interim civilian government.

Some critics of the country’s second revolution said Egyptians should adhere to the outcome of free elections. But Morsi’s critics said his power grabs and Islamist leadership would have stripped many Egyptians of critical freedoms before they could vote again.

Ramez Salama is a freelance tour guide and an Egyptian Christian who attends a large Presbyterian church in Cairo. When I visited Cairo last year, Salama, 31, served as my guide in the city. He was worried then the country would move in an Islamist direction.

When I reached him by phone as the recent violence broke, Salama said he supported Morsi’s ouster. His Muslim friends agreed. “If we wait four years the entire culture would have been changed,” he said. “We were losing our identity. We were going rapidly toward a strict Islamic state.” 

That’s the direction many Morsi supporters wanted. After the president’s ouster, and despite hundreds of thousands who took to the street calling for it, thousands of his supporters formed two sprawling encampments at major intersections in Cairo, and vowed they wouldn’t leave until the interim government reinstated Morsi.

The massive encampments—as many as 40,000 people at times—caused chaos for Egyptians living in the area. Some of the speeches inside the camp caused fear. “If you go and hear the speech of hatred they promote against the Christians of Egypt—you can’t imagine,” said Salama. The Associated Press quoted one speaker: “We are standing up to a world of infidels that refuses to follow Islam.”

In early August, Amnesty International released a disturbing report describing torture in the pro-Morsi camps. The report said anti-Morsi protesters had been “captured, beaten, subjected to electric shocks or stabbed by individuals loyal to the former president.” One victim said assailants dragged him to a location near one of the encampments, and beat him. He said armed men slit the throat of another captive.

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