Egypt’s Coptic Christians say fresh attacks have been carried out against churches in at least four parts of the country and that tensions between the majority Sunni Muslims and minority Christian sects are higher than for many decades.
Christian leaders have blamed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, which are believed to have led to several deaths, including that of a teenage girl who was reportedly leaving Bible class in Cairo when she was shot dead. At least nine churches nationwide have been torched since early Wednesday. Community leaders say the number of arson attacks could be as high as 20. Three of the attacks are confirmed to have taken place in central Egypt.
The Coptic sect has largely remained staunchly behind the interim military-led government that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood figure, six weeks ago. Coptics had vehemently opposed the Brotherhood’s troubled year in office, railing against many decisions the Morsi government made, which were deemed by many Christians to be in favour of hardline Islamists.
Tensions between the Brotherhood and Christians has steadily risen since the coup on 3 July. Brotherhood leaders have acknowledged a divide between the sects, but said it was rooted in politics rather than theology.
“I don’t dislike them as a sect or as a people. To the contrary,” a senior Brotherhood figure told the Guardian in Cairo earlier this month. “Our concern is that they have blindly backed a military and an old guard who has seized from us our legitimate rights. Were this to have happened to them, they would have been the loudest to complain.”
Coptic voices in Egypt and across the large Egyptian disapora condemned the violence. In Cairo, the Maspero Youth Union rights group accused the Brotherhood movement of “waging a war of retaliation”.
Christians in Egypt have long felt a deep sense of persecution, which was amplified during the brief period of Brotherhood rule. The spike in attacks is being viewed through the prism of ancient unresolved grievances, rather than recent reprisals.
Accounting for roughly 10% of Egypt’s 84 million citizens, the Copts represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Their fate has long been of interest to Europe and the US. On Friday, two United Nations special advisers expressed serious concern over violence against Christian churches and institutions.
Adama Dieng, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Jennifer Welsh, special adviser on the responsibility to protect, said they noted “with alarm that a number of Christian churches and institutions have been targeted, including in the provinces of Assiut, Fayoum, Minya and Sohag, reportedly in retaliation to the incidents in Cairo”.
“We urge all Egyptians to act responsibly during these difficult moments and refrain from using violence to express their grievances, in particular by targeting religious minorities and institutions, or by using language and inciting behaviours that may escalate tensions. We call all political and social actors to abandon strategies of confrontation.”