Egypt Islamists Hold Coptic Christians Hostage, Terrorize Copt Population

A Prince Tadros Church church member prays a day after the church was torched on August 14.
A Prince Tadros Church church member prays a day after the church was torched on August 14. | (Photo: Flickr / Lea_Frehse)

Islamists have taken over a southern Egyptian city, vandalizing its Christian institutions and terrorizing its Coptic population.

Since Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown on July 3, Islamists have ruled Dalga, a city of 120,000 people, 20,000 of whom are Christians. Immediately after Morsi was forced to step down, attackers plundered Christian institutions, stealing ancient churches icons and electrical equipment and burning the buildings after they had finished.

Father Yoannis Coptic Orthodox priest told the Associated Press that the Islamists' actions were meant to break the Christian population.

"They don't want to see any Christian with any power, no matter how modest," Yoannis said. "They only want to see us poor without money, a trade or a business to be proud of."

In addition to the loss of their churches, many Christians have also had their homes and small businesses attacked, set on fire and looted. One Christian who fired shots in the air from his roof meant to scare off gang members was reportedly dragged off and murdered.

In response, 40 families have fled the city since the violence started. Many of those who have remained have been forced to bribe Muslims to protect them from the violence. Coptic women, often the targets of Muslim verbal harassment, have stayed inside to avoid uncomfortable situations, though many men, fearing for their own safety, have joined them.

"The Copts in Dalga live in utter humiliation," local rights activist Ezzat Ibrahim told the Associated Press. "They live in horror and cannot lead normal lives."

Most Christians stores have closed and some churches have missed weeks of Sunday services. Those open have seen their attendance dramatically falter. In one church that normally averaged 500 people weekly, only 25 showed up recently for a weekly service.

Although the Egyptian army has nationally filled the power vacuum after Morsi was ousted, their influence is weak in the southern part of the country. Since the Islamists took over Dalga, the army has only attempted to confront Islamists twice. Both times they were turned away after their armored vehicles were showered with gunfire.

While Dalga represents the Islamists strongest and harshest rule, their influence in the southern part extends throughout the provinces of Assiut and Minya, where Dalga is located. These provinces are also home to Egypt's largest Christian population.

There is no precedent in recent history of this type of aggression towards Copts, Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, civil liberties group, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

"There is a faction that is against the state and its law enforcers and it's taking revenge from the weaker groups, namely the Copts," said Ibrahim. "Probably at no point in modern Egypt was there a similar wave when it comes to the number, scope and patterns of attacks."

"There are no words that can describe the state of panic," said Ibrahim. "You sit expecting that at any minute dozens of armed people could attack your home, possibly even kill you or drive you out."

For all the violence, Christians have refused to respond violently.

"Even if we had firearms, we would be reluctant to use them," said Yoannis. "We cannot take a life. Firing in the air may be our limit."

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