One year on the MB nationwide attack against the Copts in tandem with the police breakup of the Rabaa and Nahda MB sit-ins in Cairo, Watani investigates the work conducted, and scheduled, to repair the damage
The date 14 August 2013 will go down in the recent history of Copts as the day which saw the ultimate sacrifice they had to offer their motherland, Egypt.
At dawn that day, security forces began the breakup of the Muslim Brothers (MB) sit-ins in Rabaa Square in the east of Cairo and Nahda Square in the west. The six-week-long sit-ins had been held to protest the overthrow on 3 July of the Islamist President Muhammad Mursi, a move taken by the military following mass demonstrations on 30 June by some 33 million Egyptians demanding the overthrow of Mr Mursi and an end to his MB regime. The army gave an ultimatum to the President to resolve the crisis lest Egypt succumbed to an ominous civil war. But Mr Mursi scorned the ultimatum and the people’s demands and, come 3 July, was effectively overthrown.
The MB supporters nationwide retaliated with violence and terrorist acts against Egyptian civilians, police, and military. They held sit-ins at the two Cairo sites, which mushroomed to include some 90,000 protestors and went on to become a scourge for the residents and a centre point from which terrorist calls and operations were spearheaded. The Egyptian media resounded with calls for the government to assume a strong stance and order the breakup of the sit-ins, to the point where the government was vocally accused of feebleness and “trembling hands”. All efforts to disband the sit-ins through mediation between the Egyptian government and the MB failed miserably because of the latter’s adamant refusal to peacefully disperse.
The floodgates of hate open
Finally, on 14 August, the breakup of the sit-ins began. The Islamists retaliated by unleashing a torrent of terrorism of which they made no secret; they had already explicitly threatened to do so.
Predictably, the worst terror was reserved for the Copts. Given that they have historically been a peaceful community which never answered violence with counter violence, and that Islamists had over the years built up among their support base so much hatred for the Copts whom they always branded as enemies of Islam, they were the easy prey. They were penalised for having dared take an active part in the 30 June Revolution, as though it were not their basic right as Egyptian citizens to engage in peaceful protest. Yet the Islamist slogan went: “Oh what indignity, what disgrace! The Nassaara (a derogatory term used to denote Christians) are revolutionists!”
Copts from Sohag in the south, some 460km south of Cairo, to Arish on the Mediterranean coast in the north were viciously attacked. Assiut, 350km south; Minya, 250km south; Beni Sweif, 100km south; Fayoum, 100km southwest of Cairo; Giza a few kilometres south of Cairo; and Arish saw systematic rampage against the Copts.
Seven Copts lost their lives, killed in horrifying scenes. The bodies of two of them were beheaded and paraded all over the town of Dalga, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo. Close to 100 churches and Christian establishments—including Church-owned community centres, schools, clinics, two Nile boats and an orphanage—were attacked; 40 per cent of them were almost completely burnt, and 60 per cent suffered various degrees of damage. An appalling 1000 Coptic-owned homes, shops, private businesses, trucks, private cars, and motorcycles were destroyed.
Meticulously planned beforehand
Watani’s online paper, wataninet, at the time investigated one by one the attacks and the damage caused. It printed and posted online a fully-detailed tally of the losses. The file, entitled Harb al-Karahiya (War of Hate) includes details, photos and video footage on http://www.wataninet.com/watani_Article_Details.aspx?A=45365. The data was also made available to our English-language readers under the title Avalanche of hate on our front page of Watani International, 29 September 2013, and on http://en.wataninet.com/egypt-arab-spring/egypt-post-30-june/avalanche-of-hate/1292/. The tally for the losses has been posted on http://en.wataninet.com/egypt-arab-spring/egypt-post-30-june/watani-launches-compensation-fund-for-coptic-victims/1304/
It is conspicuous that the bishops interviewed by Watani the Coptic Orthodox bishops Anba Demetrius of Mallawi, Anba Agapius of Deir Muwwas, Anba Macarius of Minya, Anba Lucas of Abnoub; and the Coptic Catholic bishop of Minya Anba Boutros Fahim all said that the attacks by the Islamists were systematic and followed the same pattern everywhere, meaning they had been meticulously planned beforehand, to be waged in the expected event of the breakup of the sit-ins.
“We got our orders”
The pattern of attack was the same everywhere. Eyewitnesses told Watani that once it was known the sit-ins were being disbanded, thousands of local Islamists—in Dalga, Minya, the estimate was that they were some 10,000—gathered and went on a rampage. They began with attacking police stations, obviously to incapacitate the police and render the towns and villages indefensible. They attacked and burned public buildings, among them the courthouse in Mallawi and the Mallawi Museum in Minya; the Giza governorate building; the Ministry of Finance in Cairo; and many others. Turning on the Copts, they began with the churches and Church-owned establishments like community centres, clinics, and schools; then went on to the homes, shops, businesses, even vehicles belonging to Copts.
Again the brutal pattern of attack was the same everywhere. First came the stone-throwing and the attempt to storm into the locked gates of the churches, homes, or other buildings. Once they made their way in, they threatened or attacked anyone inside. Shouting obscenities against Christians, they looted everything: the furniture, church pews, electric appliances, computers, school desks, cash and gold jewellery in homes. What could not be stolen was smashed; “the bathroom sinks and toilets, the wooden and ceramic flooring, even the electric wiring was grabbed out,” Father Yulius of the church of St Michael’s in Kirdassa, Giza, told Watani.
A Kirdassa resident, a young technician whose first name is Ghali, told Watani that the village had always been a stronghold of Islamists, but that neighbourliness had always been honoured. The day the Islamists burned St Michael’s, Ghali said, his Islamist neighbour who had taken part in the assault came back to him and said: “Ghali, please don’t be cross at me. We got our orders.”
Vegetable market in place of ancient church
In case of churches or church establishments, the ritual was to bring down the cross which usually stands on top of the dome, building, or gate. Amid screams of “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest), someone would climb and belt the cross with ropes which the mob below would tug until it was pulled out. They would then proceed to smash it while rejoicing in their triumph. Finally—or in many cases in parallel with the plundering, they would set the place on fire using gas cylinders, Molotov cocktails, or some highly inflammable material. Predictably, there would be no-one to put the fire out, the Islamists took care of that when they first attacked the police. No fire truck would have dared navigate the streets with so much unrest and no police in sight.
Among the irreparable losses has been the church of the Holy Virgin in Dalga, Minya, a fourth century church which was burnt down and forever lost. The following day, the Islamist mob brought in trucks and removed the rubble, then began digging, hoping to find treasure. When they didn’t, they turned the place into a vegetable market, and hung a sign saying: “Donations required to build a mosque here”. This went on for several days till word got out and the town elders, disgraced by the scandal, were able to persuade the Islamists to give the church site back to the Church.
One year on the 14 August attacks against the Copts, Watani investigated the rebuilding and restoration work being conducted to bring the lives and worship of the congregation back to normal.
Homes and shops were the first concern. These came under attack primarily in the governorates of Minya and Assiut. Watani’s investigation revealed that, in the various towns and villages of Minya province which were victim to the most severe attacks and damage, donations from inside and outside Egypt have helped rebuild all the damaged homes. According to Anba Macarius, of Minya and Abu-Qurqas, Copts who lost shops or businesses were compensated by the Church with sums of money that helped them restart their businesses. The rebuilding costs, he confirmed, amounted to some EGP2.5 million. In Mallawi, Minya, donations have allowed the Church to partially compensate victims for their losses, and the majority of them have resumed their lives and activities. And in the Minya town of Dalga which had been the scene of horrendous damage that left the homes of Copts unliveable, private donors rebuilt the ruined homes with the help of the Church.
In Assiut, however, matters did not go so smoothly and most home and shop owners went uncompensated.
The other immediate priority concerned the damaged schools, since they had to reopen less than a month after the attacks for the new school year. Watani found that in Assiut and Minya, the schools were quickly repaired and reopened, but in Suez and Beni Sweif the pupils and students had to spend the school year in makeshift temporary quarters.
Rebuilding the churches
The army had promised that, with the help of the Housing Ministry, it would rebuild and renovate what the MB had ruined. The army had back in March and May 2011 rebuilt the Sole church in Etfeeh and the Holy Virgin’s church in Imbaba, Cairo, both of which had been burnt by Islamists. Following the widescale attack by the MB against the Copts on 14 August 2013, and the army’s promise to rebuild, the Church said it would do the repairs and renovation which lay within its means and capacity, and would only leave to the army the rebuilding and renovation of the totally destroyed buildings.
The rebuilding was scheduled in three phases. The first phase included 10 churches in five governorates, and should have been concluded by 30 June this year but is still dragging on because of the difficult security and economic conditions the country is going through. Also, according to Anba Pimen, Bishop of Quos and Naqada, because the scope and details of the work are extensive. Now it is expected that the first phase should be completed in another three months.
“The work involves three stages,” Anba Pimen told Watani. “The first involves pulling down the buildings that were ruined beyond repair, and rebuilding them. The second is concerned with the finishing and wall paintings, and the third concerns the furnishing, installation of equipment and utensils.”
The cost of the first phase, according to Anba Pimen, amounts to some EGP69 million. The second phase will cost some EGP50 million, and will involve heavily damaged churches in Kirdassa, Giza, St Therese’s of Assiut, as well as the Holy Virgin’s in Dalga and other churches in Minya and Fayoum.
“The full rebuilding and restoration work,” Anba Pimen says, “is scheduled to be completed by 30 June 2015. We hope nothing delays the work.”
But it did not have to wait for rebuilding or restoration for the Copts to hold their prayers. Just two days after the ruinous attack on 14 August 2013, Holy Mass was held among the ruins of the church of Anba Moussa al-Asswad in Beni Hilal, Minya. With the smell of the scorched walls and smoke still in the air, the congregation gathered with Anba Macarius to pray. “We were confirming that the ‘Church’ is not a building. The Church is inside each one of us, clergy and laity; it is in our living hearts and souls.” That day, he said, Holy Mass was held not amid the beauty of a majestic, arched and domed construction; not among the wondrous icons or chandeliers; but in the living beauty of the Eucharist.
And one year on, in addition to the usual daily services, the churches have been holding the traditional evening services of Vespers during wich praises are sung for the Holy Virgin during her fast. Huge numbers of Copts have been participating.
Anba Lucas of Abnoub and Fath reiterated the words of Pope Tawadros II: “We can pray in a nation without a church, but we cannot pray in a church without a nation. We willingly sacrificed our homes and churches on 14 August 2013 for the sake of Egypt.” He was referring, of course to the fact that the Copts sustained their pain and losses without a single attempt to protest or demonstrate or give in to the MB attempts to turn the attacks into sectarian strife.
The words of Pope Tawadros ring true: “The hand of evil destroys, burns, and kills; but the hand of the Lord preserves, strengthens, blesses and builds.”