The Coptic Orthodox priest would only talk to his visitor after hiding from the watchful eyes of the bearded Muslim outside, who sported a pistol bulging from under his robe. Therefore, Fr Yoannis moved behind a wall in the charred skeleton of an ancient monastery to describe how Islamists torched it and then looted it when they took over this southern Egyptian town following the ouster of the country’s president. Fr Yoannis told us, “The fire in the monastery burned intermittently for three days. The looting continued for a week. At the end, not a wire or an electric switch was left”. The looters stripped the monastery’s 1,600-year-old underground chapel of ancient icons, and they dug up the grounds as they believed that there was buried treasure. Fr Yoannis said, “Even the remains of ancient and revered saints were disturbed and thrown around”.
A town of some 120,000… including 20,000 Christians… Dalga has been outside government control since hard-line supporters of the Islamist Mohamed Morsi Isa al-Ayyat drove out police and occupied their station on 3 July, the day that the Egyptian military removed the president in a popularly-supported coup. It was part of a wave of attacks in southern Minya Governorate targeting Christians, their homes, and their businesses. Since then, the radicals imposed their grip on Dalga, twice driving off attempts by the army to send in APCs by showering them with gunfire. Their hold points to the power of hard-line Islamists in southern Egypt, even after Morsi’s removal… and their determination to defy the military-backed leadership that’s replaced him. With the army and police already fighting a burgeoning militant insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, there are growing signs that a second insurgency could erupt in the south… particularly in Minya and Asyut Governorates, both Islamist strongholds and both home to Egypt’s two largest Christian communities.
The takeover of Dalga was disastrous for the Christian community in the town, located 270 kilometers (160 miles) south of Cairo in Minya Governorate, on the edge of the Nile Valley near the cliffs that mark the start of the desert. In the initial burst of violence, the insurgents ransacked and set ablaze the town’s only Catholic church, like the Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St Abraam, and they looted the Anglican church. Since then, Fr Yoannis said that some 40 Christian families fled Dalga. According to local Minya activists, Islamists attacked nearly 40 Christian-owned homes and stores. Bandits from the nearby deserts joined the looting and burning. To ensure the spread of fear, the attackers torched houses in all Christian neighbourhoods, not just one or two. Amongst the homes torched was that of Fr Angelos, an 80-year-old Orthodox priest who lives close to the monastery. His Muslim neighbours spared Fr Yoannis’ home from a similar fate. The rebels dragged down and killed a 60-year-old Christian who fired from his roof to ward off a mob. Fr Yoannis said, “Even if we had firearms, we’d be reluctant to use them. We can’t take a life. Firing in the air may be our limit”.
Those who remain pay armed Muslim neighbours to protect them. Fr Yoannis said that his brother paid with a cow and a water buffalo. For weeks, most Christian businesses remain closed. One can see armed men in the streets, and nearly every day Islamists hold rallies at a stage outside the police station, demanding Morsi’s reinstatement. Most Christians remain indoors as much as possible, particularly during the rallies. They say they’re routinely insulted on the streets by Muslims, including children. Christian women stay home at all times, fearing harassment by the Islamists, according to multiple Christians who spoke to the AP. Most requested that we not publish their names for fear of reprisals. Local rights activist Ezzat Ibrahim said, “The Copts in Dalga live in utter humiliation. They live in horror and can’t lead normal lives”.
None of the town’s churches held services for a month, until Wednesday, when Christians held one in one of the monastery’s two churches. About 25 attended, down from the usual 500 or more. Fr Yoannis said of the hard-liners now running Dalga, “They don’t want to see any Christian with any power, no matter how modest. They only want to see us poor without money, without a trade or a business to be proud of”. Like other Christians in town, he said that police and the authorities were helpless to intervene, noting, “Everyone keeps telling me that I should alert the police and the army, as if I hadn’t done that already”. At intervals, the 33-year-old father of three would stop talking, move carefully to the edge of a wall, and stick his head out to check if someone was coming. His big worry was the bearded Muslim at the gate, Saber Sarhan Askar. Dalga’s Christians say that Askar, skinny with hawk-like hazelnut eyes, took part in torching and looting the monastery. Outside the monastery that day, Askar told priests that he was there to protect it. However, the orders he yelled to other priests left no doubt who was in charge. He barked at one priest, “Bring us tea!” soon after, he screamed at another, “I need something cold to drink!”
A day after the Islamists took over, school teacher and part-time entrepreneur Kromer Ishaq fled Dalga. Already, the Islamists accused his father in a family blood feud… a charge that could prompt the killing of Ishaq. Then, on the night of the takeover, someone broke into and looted Ishaq’s gold shop. The son of a wealthy family, Ishaq fled with his extended family all the way to the Nile Delta north of Cairo, where he’s now looking for work. By telephone, Ishaq said, “I used to employ people, and, now, I’m looking for work. I once lived in a house I owned, and, now, I live in a rented apartment. You ask me what life is like? It’s like black tar”.
Dalga is the most radical example of Islamist power in Minya… no other town is under such extreme lockdown. However, in general, the province saw a surge in Islamist violence since the coup against Morsi. In the province, Islamists attacked 35 churches, including 19 completely gutted by fire. They destroyed at least six Christian schools and five orphanages, along with five courthouses, seven police stations, and six city council buildings. In addition, they looted and ransacked a museum in the city of Mallawi. On 11 August, policemen thought to be loyal to Morsi stormed the provincial police headquarters in Minya city. They dragged out the province’s security chief and his top aide from their offices and ordered them both to leave the province. They did.
Minya was the epicentre of Islamic militant insurgency against the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the 1980s and 90s. It remains a stronghold of Islamism, including the extremist al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya group. It also has the largest Christian community of Egypt’s 29 provinces, 35 percent of Minya’s 4 million people, compared to around 10 percent nationwide. Over Egypt’s past 2½ years of turmoil, Islamist strength grew. Hundreds of jailed radicals who purportedly forswore violence… though not their hard-line ideology… were freed after Mubarak’s 2011 fall and given the freedom to recruit. The south saw a flood of heavy weapons smuggled across the desert from neighbouring Libya. A top Interior Ministry official in Cairo said the Minya police suffered large-scale infiltration by pro-Morsi Islamists. Today, the Ministry’s investigating the local force. The official spoke to us anonymously, as the probe was still underway. On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry replaced the Minya security chief who fled the province, as well as two top aides, for what it called failure to maintain law and order. In the security vacuum, Christians largely paid the price.
Christian businessman Talaat Bassili recounted how, on 15 August, dozens of men, some armed, stormed his home in Mallawi, not far from Dalga. For three hours, with no police or army in sight, the attackers made off with TV sets, washing machines, mobile phones, jewellery, and cash. The attackers descended on the house from scaffoldings on a mosque next door. In footage from Bassili’s security camera, men in robes and boys in sandals tried to force their way into the house, then, finally, blasted away the lock with Kalashnikov assault rifles. Some loaded their loot into a donkey cart. Later, the footage shows Bassili, his wife Nahed Samaan… in a nightgown and robe… and son Fady leaving to take refuge with a neighbour. A week later, Bassili said that a man called him on his mobile phone to ask whether he wanted to buy some of his stuff back, saying, “I said no”.
6 September 2013
As quoted in NBC News