CAIRO, Egypt – A group of hard-line Muslims attacked a church building in Upper Egypt Friday afternoon, torching the structure and then looting and burning nearby Christian-owned homes and businesses.
The 3,000-strong mob of hard-line and Salafi Muslims gutted the Mar Gerges Church in the Elmarenab village of Aswan, then demolished much of its remains, multiple witnesses at the scene said. The mob also razed four homes near the church and two businesses, all Christian-owned. Looting was also reported.
Michael Ramzy, a villager in Elmarenab, said the attack started shortly after Muslims held their afternoon prayers.
“Imams in more than 20 mosques called for crowds to gather and destroy the church and demolish the houses of the Copts and loot their properties,” Ramzy told local media.
The Mar Gerges burning is the third church in Egypt in seven months to be burned down by a mob. Additionally, numerous other churches have been looted or otherwise attacked this year, including a New Year’s Eve bombing at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria that left 23 dead and scores critically wounded.
No casualties have yet been reported in Friday’s attack.
The tension in Elmarenab started the last week of August, when Muslim extremists, many of them thought to be members of the Salafi movement, which patterns its belief and practices on the first three generations of Muslims, voiced anger over renovations taking place at the church and anything perceived as a Christian symbol that could be seen from the outside.
To force the Copts to acquiesce to their demands, the Muslim extremists blockaded the entrance to the church and threatened Copts on the streets, in effect making them hostages in their own homes.
On Sept. 2, a meeting was held with military leaders and village elders in which the local leadership of the Coptic church agreed to strike all crosses and bells from the outside of the church. Normalcy returned briefly to the village, but by early the next week, the same people making demands for the removal of the crosses demanded the removal of newly constructed domes.
In subsequent meetings, known as “reconciliation meetings,” the priests of the church said that removing the domes would cause the building to collapse. Unfazed, the group of hard-line Muslims called for the church building to be burned.
During the dispute, the Muslim group claimed that the renovations were illegal because the building in question wasn’t actually a church, but a hospitality building – a claim cast into doubt as the original building on the site had existed as a church for roughly 100 years, and the parish received permission by the Aswan governor in 2010 to rebuild it as a church.
The attack is part of a larger and ever-increasing trend taking place in Egypt whereby a government official in a province or municipality grants permission for a church to be built or reopened, and hard-line Muslims threaten violence if services take place. Coptic leaders accuse the government of playing a colluding role in the violence by not enforcing the law, including a recently renewed and expanded Emergency Law, which stipulates imprisonment as a penalty for acts of sectarian strife, “thuggery” and vandalism of private property.