(New York) – Egyptian authorities should take the necessary steps to protect churches and religious institutions against mob attacks, Human Rights Watch said today. Since August 14, 2013, attackers have torched and looted scores of churches and Christian property across the country, leaving at least four people dead. Authorities should also investigate why security forces were largely absent or failed to intervene even when they had been informed of ongoing attacks.
Immediately following the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on August 14, crowds of men attacked at least 42 churches, burning or damaging 37, as well as dozens of other Christian religious institutions in the governorates of Minya, Asyut, Fayum, Giza, Suez, Sohag, Bani Suef, and North Sinai. Human Rights Watch has verified with family members and a lawyer that at least three Coptic Christians and one Muslim were killed as a result of sectarian attacks in Dalga, Minya city, and Cairo.
“For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in Mohammad Morsy’s ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now dozens of churches are smoldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 43 witnesses, priests, and Coptic activists, who confirmed the attacks on 42 churches, dozens of Christian institutions and schools, and Coptic-owned business and homes. Human Rights Watch visited 11 sites in Minya city and Bani Suef, where attacks took place, and spoke to the head of the security directorate for Minya governorate.
In the vast majority of the 42 cases Human Rights Watch documented, neither the police nor the military were present at the start or during the attack. In one case, in Dalga, a village in southern Minya governorate, residents said that men had attacked the local police station around the same time. In Kirdassa, Giza, west of Cairo, an activist said that mobs attacked the local police station, killing15 officers according to the Associated Press, before attacking Al-Mallak church. A priest in Malawi, a town in Minya governorate south of Minya city, told Human Rights Watch that he called emergency services and police multiple times while mobs burned his church, but no one came. Another Dalga resident said that on August 16 the governor promised to send armored personnel carriers to protect Copts from ongoing violence, but that none came.
“We [church officials] spoke to the prime minister, minister of interior, and a military official asking them to intervene,” Coptic Bishop General of Minya Anba Makarios told Human Rights Watch on August 19. He said the officials promised to send protection, but it never arrived.
In Hadeyeq Helwan, 30 kilometers south of Cairo, a resident told Human Rights Watch that one armored personnel carrier finally arrived on the afternoon of August 17, a day after the St. George Church there came under attack.
Residents in Minya city told Human Rights Watch that in the week following Morsy’s removal from the presidency on July 3, someone had spray-painted Coptic-owned store fronts in Minya’s city center with a black “X” to distinguish them from Muslim-owned buildings. Those marked subsequently came under attack.
The attacks come after weeks of sectarian discourse by Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the Nahda and Rab’a al-Adawiya sit-ins in which speakers claimed or insinuated a link between Copts and Morsy’s removal. One speaker, Assem Abdel Magid, said on July 24,“Copts and communists are supporting Sisi in the killing of Muslims.” A YouTube video of a pro-Morsy march on July 12 shows marchers chanting “Islamic Islamic despite the Christians” while passing a church.
Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders have condemned the recent sectarian attacks. On August 16, Dr. Mourad Ali, spokesman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, released a statement that said, “Pursuant to our party’s indivisible principles, we strongly condemn any attack, even verbal, against Copts, their churches or their property.”
Others however have suggested a Coptic role in the ongoing crackdown on the group. On the afternoon of August 14, the Freedom and Justice Party Helwan Branch posted a statement on the group’s Facebook page accusing Pope Tawadros, the religious leader of the Egyptian Coptic community,of participating in Morsy’s removal and of inciting Copts to block roads, encircle mosques, and storm them. The message ended with, “For every action there is a reaction.” On August 16, the Muslim Brotherhood website published a story with the headline,“The police and the church open fire on the al-Haram march at Giza tunnel and Murad Street.” Several residents and clergy in areas where church attacks occurred said that local religious leaders incited groups to attack churches.
Sectarian attacks against Christians had increased even before the August 14 action against the camps. On July 5, following Morsy’s ouster on July 3, four Copts were killed in Luxor governorate. On July 23, Human Rights Watch called on the Egyptian authorities to take steps to protect Christians, investigate attacks, and hold those responsible to account.
“While a few Muslim Brotherhood leaders have condemned these attacks, they also need to tell the group’s followers to stop inciting violence by insinuating that the Coptic minority is responsible for the crackdown,” Stork said.
Sectarian Attacks Since August 14
Most of the attacks occurred in Upper Egypt. John Sameer, 21, a resident of Minya city, 250 kilometers south of Cairo, told Human Rights Watch that at 10 a.m. on August 14, he saw crowds of thousands of men on trucks and on foot approaching his neighborhood chanting anti-Christian slogans directly aimed at the Egyptian Coptic community. “Tawadros, you are a coward for the Americans” and “Tawadros, you coward, get your dogs out of the square,” he said they chanted, referring to the head of the church and the participation of Christians in June 30 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square calling for Morsy’s removal from power.
Sameer said that the crowd attacked the al-Amir Tadros Coptic Church that afternoon, breaking in and taking the church safe, then setting the building ablaze. Sameer, who went to the scene to observe, said that men around the church were carrying Molotov cocktails and that at least five had assault rifles, but they did not attack him. Sameer followed the men as they attacked and burned approximately 20 shops, three other churches, the Coptic boys’ school complex, the Saint Joseph’s girls’ school, the Gunud al-Maseeh orphanage, and the Jesuit community center. Sameer said that security forces were absent throughout the incident, and emergency vehicles and firefighters did not come to extinguish the fires despite calls for help.
Philimon Sameer, John’s brother, 24, told Human Rights Watch that he approached al-Amir Tadros Coptic Church at around 3 p.m. to try to save it, but that four bearded men threw rocks at him and other Copts trying to extinguish the fire. He said no police or security services came to stop the attack, despite the fact that the church is 20 meters from the Minya governorate’s security directorate. He said he saw several Christian institutions and Christian-owned businesses in the area looted and burning, including the al-Anba Arsanious Hall church building, the Roxy supermarket, the Rozina Café, and the YMCA building. No one was injured in these attacks, he said.
Father Bernaba at the Mar Meena Coptic Church in Minya city told Human Rights Watch that a large crowd attacked his church on the afternoon of August 14, setting fire to the church clinic and services building, and damaging the front exterior of the church itself. He said that security forces and police did not come to stop the attack. At midnight, however, when attackers returned, security forces dispatched an armored personnel carrier. It deterred the attackers, who moved away from the church.
Wissam Mamduh, 19, a resident of Sohag city, 450 kilometers south of Cairo, told Human Rights Watch that at 9 a.m. on August 14, he observed a group of approximately 150 men march from a sit-in at Thaqafa square toward the St. George Coptic Church nearby, chanting “Islamic Islamic,” a common chant by proponents of an Islamic state. After storming and looting the church, the men set it on fire. He said that the men also attacked and burned dozens of Coptic-owned businesses and homes in the area. The security services did not arrive for another two hours, after everything was on fire, he said.
In Dalga, a village in southern Minya governorate, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that mobs attacked churches and Coptic homes as soon as the news of the Cairo sit-in dispersal reached residents of the town. Gamil Nagih, 21, said that at 7:45 a.m. he heard the imam of a nearby mosque announce over the mosque loudspeakers, “Go help your brothers in Rab’a.” At 9 a.m. he said, he saw thousands of men gathering outside Saints Mary and Ibram church. The men broke the through doors while shouting “Islamic, Islamic,” he said. The attackers then looted the church and set it on fire. The attackers also torched 20 Coptic homes and looted and burned Coptic-owned shops in the area, he said.
Human Rights Watch visited the remains of the Franciscan girl’s school and church in Bani Suef, 125 kilometers south of Cairo, which a mob attacked and burned on August 14. Father Boulos Fahmy, a Catholic priest affiliated with the school, said that at around 9 a.m. the nuns, who were alone at the school, contacted him by phone telling him that a mob was threatening the school. He notified the police, who sent a car to deter the attackers but it departed less than an hour later after a nearby police station came under attack, he said. The men returned soon after, looting and setting fire to the school and church. The men forced three nuns to leave the school and walked them through nearby streets, verbally abusing them. Local Muslim residents rescued the nuns from the mob and escorted them away to safety.
Another Dalga resident, Sameer Lamie, 31, told Human Rights Watch that a crowd of men gathered outside his home before 9 a.m. A group of armed men eventually broke down his door and entered his house. He said the men shot his cousin Iskandar Doss twice, while Lamie, his mother, and Doss’s wife and daughter-in-law escaped by climbing to the roof. Lamie said the attackers fired birdshot at him, hitting him in his side with 13 pellets, and they hit his mother with a pellet under her eye. Lamie said he learned later that Doss died of his wounds. He said that no security forces or police arrived during the attack.
In Minya city, residents, family members, and the Christian owner of the Mermaid boat restaurant, along the Minya city corniche, told Human Rights Watch that two Mermaid employees – Bishoy Mikhail, a Copt, and Ihab Ali Ahmed, a Muslim – died while hiding in the bathroom of the boat after a mob set it on fire. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the boat on August 19 and viewed the charred remains of shoes, pants, and a mobile phone on the floor of the bathroom.
An employee of a neighboring boat restaurant, Al-Dahabiya, told Human Rights Watch that at 11 a.m. he heard a commotion at the Mermaid boat. He said: “I called the administration and told them, and at 11:15 a.m. I saw flames coming out of the boat, and then a group of 70 people approached and said they would burn the [Dahabiya] boat too.” When he asked them for a safe exit, they told him to jump into the Nile with his staff and swim away. When he responded that some staff could not swim, the men allowed him and the staff to leave unharmed from the front entrance. He said the men then torched the Dahabiya boat restaurant.
A Coptic shop owner in the Cairo neighborhood of Ezbet al-Nakhl died from gunshot wounds after a group of men attacked his shop, next to the Abu Siffin church, activists from the Maspero Youth Union told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the man’s death with family members.
In spite of the four deaths, most residents with whom Human Rights Watch spoke in Minya city said that attackers targeted buildings instead of people.
Attacks on Police and Police Response
Church clergy throughout Upper Egypt expressed frustration and desperation that security services did not quickly intervene to stop the widespread attacks. The pastor of the al-Mashyakhiya Evangelical Church in Malawi, a village in Minya governorate, told Human Rights Watch that he watched as attackers looted and burned his church on the afternoon of August 16. He said:
At 5:30 p.m., around 200 people came and started shooting at the church, they entered and looted the halls, the church, a seven-story building, and set it all ablaze. They took everything, all the equipment, furniture, everything. I called the police and army on their hotlines ... no one came, the church is gone…
Bishop Makarios told Human Rights Watch that authorities failed to protect churches despite repeated warnings, and that on August 19, five days after the attacks, police still had not returned to the streets in adequate numbers since the morning August 14.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Human Rights Watch that a group of men attacked a police station in Kirdassa, Giza, before moving on to loot and burn al-Mallak church. The Associated Press, which interviewed the sole police officer who survived the attack, reported that the mob killed 15 officers and then mutilated their bodies. A YouTube video purportedly filmed after the attack shows a group of officers lying on the ground in pools of blood.
Maj. Gen. Abdelaziz Qura, head of the Minya security directorate, told Human Rights Watch that on August 14, when news of the sit-in dispersal reach Minya, “groups simultaneously attacked police stations and some churches in Minya. They were shooting live fire at security forces, and the security forces did not leave their positions because they didn’t want anyone to free the prisoners [held in police stations], like what happened in January 2011.” He said that groups attacked 12 police stations in Minya governorate, six of which they burned to the ground, and that attackers killed 13 police officers and wounded another 30 with live fire. He said that police have arrested 41 men in Minya, some of whom he believes belong to Islamist groups, and that prosecutors have initiated investigations of all church attacks.
Qura confirmed that security forces had not moved to protect Christian-owned buildings and churches since August 14, saying that police could not deploy at full strength without assistance from military armored personnel carriers, but that he expected the security situation to improve by August 21.
According to Reuters, at least 100 members of the security forces have been killed throughout Egypt in attacks on police stations and check points or in clashes with protesters since August 14. The authorities should investigate such violence and ensure criminal accountability, with due judicial process, of those found responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
Incitement to Attack Christian-Owned Buildings and Churches
In addition to Islamist rhetoric relating to support by Copts for Morsy’s removal, residents and priests told Human Rights Watch that local groups and religious leaders also incited groups to target Christians. At least 10 residents in Minya city told Human Rights Watch that in the week following Morsy’s removal, someone spray-painted a black X on Coptic-owned store fronts in Minya’s city center to distinguish them from Muslim-owned buildings.
Human Rights Watch researchers observed these markings on August 19 on many of the damaged businesses. One Christian shop owner in Minya, Alfons Massoud, 70, said that at 3:30 p.m. on August 14 young boys with knives and between 20 and 30 bearded men with guns attacked and burned a neighboring shop bearing the X mark. He said that they torched his shop after seeing that it had a Coptic name.
Bishop Makarios told Human Rights Watch that he heard local mosque preachers inciting sectarian attacks when the sit-in was being dispersed, saying “Islam is in danger, the infidels will eradicate Islam, go defend your brothers in Rab’a.” He noted that approximately 80 churches in the area had received anonymous phone calls warning of impending attacks against them in the week leading up to August 14.
A witness told Human Rights Watch that an imam at a mosque in the Cairo neighborhood of Maasara called over the mosque loudspeakers for the eviction of Coptic residents. Mina Lamie, 29, a neighborhood resident, said that on August 15 he heard the imam say, “The Copts are behind all of this, they participated on June 30 ... we have to burn the churches.” He said that at 11:30 p.m. thousands gathered and began chanting, “The people demand the eviction of the Copts.” No churches in the area were actually attacked, Lamie said.
List of Churches Burned or Damaged Since August 14
Churches Attacked, Not Damaged