By Todd Daniels
9/26/2013 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – “I’m afraid to get out from my home and walk in the streets of the village. The situation is so dangerous for us here,” Father Youannis Shawky, a Coptic priest, told ICC.
This sentiment is shared by many in the Christian community throughout Egypt, as Christians have increasingly come under attack for their part in the protests to remove Islamist president Mohamed Morsi from office. The retaliation against Christians from Islamists has included the looting and burning of houses, churches, schools, and businesses. It has also become personal, as kidnapping and threats against individuals have been on the rise. In the city of Delga, in Upper Egypt, Islamist gangs took control, holding it captive for more than two months before security forces moved in.
A City without Protection
Father Youannis is a priest of St. Mary and Anba Abraam Monastery in Delga, Egypt. The city of 120,000 people, including 15,000 Christians, had been under the control of hardline supporters of former President Morsi for nearly two months.
On Monday, September 16, Egyptian authorities staged an operation to retake the town. As the Guardian reports, “Two earlier attempts to retake Delga failed, but in the early hours of Monday morning police launched a third and decisive assault, and have now re-entered the town.”
The takeover by Morsi supporters occurred following his removal from office on July 3, when armed gangs in the city ran off the security forces and seized control. The situation for the Coptic Christian community became terrifying as many of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters blame the Christians for their loss of political power.
Speaking with International Christian Concern from Delga on September 12, Adel Shafik, a Coptic activist said, “From August 14 till now, more than 52 Christian families lost their homes, their homes were ransacked, burned, and demolished.” He added that “more than 40 Christian families left the village fearing from the threats of the Muslim fanatics to them.”
The destruction did not stop with just homes, but also included many of the church buildings in the city. “Our monastery which includes three churches, St Mary Church, Mar Gigis Church, and Anba Abraam Church were looted, burned and demolished. Now we don’t have any another place to pray in,” Shafik said.
The level of violence has reached a level unseen in centuries. As ICC reported, on August 18th, services were cancelled at the church for the first time in 1,600 years. Days earlier, the church, which dates back to the Fifth century, was looted and set on fire while calls for help went unanswered by the security forces, Christian Post recounted.
While these attacks continued, the security forces were nowhere to be seen. Father Youannis said, “Although there are all these attacks against Christians there is an absence of the police in the village. There is not any protection for the Christians here.” Father Youannis added, “There is a situation of panic and fear among all the Christian families in the village.”
Islamic Taxes and Threats
The feeling of panic is being exploited by thugs, who are threatening individuals and families that unless they pay a jizya, or poll tax that historically has been charged to conquered non-Muslims, they would suffer the consequences.
“They threaten the Christian families who reject to pay the jizya to them that the Muslims will kidnap their children or burn and loot their homes and shops,” Shafik said. “The jizya is different from one family to another family ranging from 500 Egyptian pounds to 1000 Egyptian pounds ($73-$146) every two weeks for some families, and for others it is daily jizya ranging from 50 to 200 Egyptian pounds ($7-$28) per day,” according to Shafik.
In a report with the Washington Times, Father Youannis said the tax is being applied without exception, and those who refuse have been attacked. He told ICC of the attack on Kamal Zaki of Delga, “because he refused to pay them the royalty, they broke into his home and grocery shop, ransacked its contents, and injured him and his family,” Father Youannis said.
Another tragic case shows the attacks do not stop just with property damage, but have also led to murder. Emad Damian, 50, and his cousin Medhat Damian, 37, in Assiut, about 50 miles from Delga, were killed after they refused to pay the ransom.
Youssef Ezzat, a relative of Emad, told ICC the tragic story. Youssef said Emad was contacted by a gang and told to pay a sum of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,450) for them to buy weapons, and to pay for the protection of his family. Emad refused to pay the money.
According to Youssef, “Emad told him ‘I don’t have this amount and I don’t ask for a protection from anyone.’ The person said to him, ‘If you don’t pay us this money we will kill you.’ Emad said to him ‘I won’t pay anything’ and ended the call.”
The next morning, Thursday, September 10, masked men broke into his house and gunned down Emad and Medhat.
With cases like this repeatedly going unpunished, there is a growing sense of impunity. “The police know who the killers are but are doing nothing to arrest them,” Ahmed Fawzi said in a report by AINA. The police and security forces themselves have come under attack and have not made a real effort to enforce the rule of law across the country.
For this reason, numerous human rights organizations, including the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), have raised their voices to speak out against the violence in Egypt. In a letter calling on President Obama to raise the issue, USCIRF Chairman Robert George wrote, “We were deeply troubled that leaders and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood tolerated or even encouraged incitement against Christians, and that the interim authorities stood by or were slow to react when attacks occurred.”
Highlighting the importance of the issue, George continued, “Coptic Christians in Egypt – numbering more than eight million people – constitute the largest religious minority community in the region. The United States must act to ensure this ancient religious community is secure both in the present and in the future.”
ICC is grateful for the work of men like Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), and others who put forward a resolution calling for the support of the fundamental rights of all Egyptian citizens, equal access to justice, and due process of law.
As attacks against Christians continue in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere, it is vital that we work to support the continued presence of these Christian communities in the lands where they have lived for nearly 2000 years.