Hundreds Riot in Egypt Over Muslim Rape Claim

Hundreds of angry Muslims, and by some accounts thousands, attacked Coptic Christians in a southern Egyptian town this past Saturday over an allegation that a Christian man kidnapped and raped a Muslim girl.

The mob looted and burned Christian owned stores in Farshoot, which is located about 300 miles south of Cairo, causing an estimated six million Egyptian pounds (over one million dollars) in damage, according to the Coptic American Friendship Association. Witnesses also reported that the mob made wooden crosses and burned them on the streets.

"We have never been so frightened and humiliated as Christians all our lives," said one witness, according to Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). "Our religion and our Lord were openly insulted."

In addition to Christian stores, the protesters also attacked the police station where they believed the accused man was being held, a police official told Agence France-Presse.

Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested 60 people during the clash that left seven Coptic owned shops destroyed, according to the official.

But Coptic reports show that at least 50 Christian owned stores, including jewelry stores and pharmacies, were looted and damaged during the uproar.

"They are destroying the Coptic economy in these areas," said Wagih Yacoub of Middle East Christian Association, according to AINA. "They want the Copts to be poor and are therefore destroying the Coptic economy in these areas."

It is estimated that 80 percent of Coptic businesses were destroyed within the 48 hours of violence in Farshoot.

Egyptian Coptic leaders criticized security forces for failing to do a better job of stopping the attacks, accusing authorities of disappearing without proper reasons during the violence.

Among the victims of the violence is Coptic priest Benjamin Noshi who was attacked and is now hospitalized with a fractured skull. Several Coptic women were also reportedly abducted during the chaos.

The current unrest is due to an allegation that a 20-year-old Christian man, now in custody, kidnapped and raped a young Muslim girl. There is a discrepancy, however, among witnesses on the age of the victim. Some villagers claim the girl's age is 12, while security sources say her age is between 18 and 30, according to Reuters.

But whatever the victim's age, Pastor Elisha of St. Michaels Church in Farshoot said he doubts that the Coptic young man raped the Muslim female. Elisha said an investigating officer told him that the Muslim girl "was only sure that her attacker wore a black jacket – nothing more," according to AINA.

All Sunday church services were canceled in Farshoot and neighboring towns due to concern for the safety of congregants.

On Monday, several more attacks on Christian owned businesses took place in nearby villages.

The Christian Coptic community in Egypt makes up eight to 12 percent of the country's population. Despite their sizeable number in Egypt, they are marginalized in society and suffer from violent forms of abuse. They also lack fair representation in the government, leading to further abuse of the minority group.

The U.S. Center for International Religious Freedom has placed Egypt on its "Watch List" due to the extent and nature of the country's religious freedom violations.