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In south Egypt, Islamists take over a town

Saturday - 9/7/2013, 11:12am  ET

This Sept. 3, 2013, photo, shows a broken picture frame holding an image of the father of Talaat Bassily, a prominent Christian businessman, whose home was looted by criminals in Malawi, Minya province, Egypt. With the Egyptian army and police already fighting a burgeoning Islamist insurgency in the strategic Sinai peninsula near the border with Gaza and Israel, there are growing signs that a second insurgency could erupt in the Nile-side Minya province and Assiut to the south -- both strongholds of Islamists and home to Egypt’s two largest Christian communities. (AP Photo/El Shorouk Newspaper, Roger Anis)

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

DALGA, Egypt (AP) -- The Coptic Orthodox priest would talk to his visitor only after hiding from the watchful eyes of the bearded Muslim outside, who sported a pistol bulging from under his robe.

So Father Yoannis moved behind a wall in the charred skeleton of an ancient monastery to describe how it was torched by Islamists and then looted when they took over this southern Egyptian town following the ouster of the country's president.

"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 is left," Yoannis told The Associated Press. The monastery's 1,600-year-old underground chapel was stripped of ancient icons and the ground was dug up on the belief that a treasure was buried there.

"Even the remains of ancient and revered saints were disturbed and thrown around," he said.

A town of some 120,000 -- including 20,000 Christians -- Dalga has been outside government control since hard-line supporters of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi drove out police and occupied their station on July 3, the day Egypt's military chief removed the president in a popularly supported coup. It was part of a wave of attacks in the southern Minya province that targeted Christians, their homes and businesses.

Since then, the radicals have imposed their grip on Dalga, twice driving off attempts by the army to send in armored personnel carriers 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 has 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 Assiut provinces, both Islamist strongholds and home to Egypt's two largest Christian communities.

The takeover of Dalga has been disastrous for the Christian community in the town, located 270 kilometers (160 miles) south of Cairo in Minya, on the edge of the Nile Valley near the cliffs that mark the start of the desert.

In the initial burst of violence, the town's only Catholic church was ransacked and set ablaze, like the Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam. The Anglican church was looted.

Some 40 Christian families have fled Dalga since, Yoannis said. Nearly 40 Christian-owned homes and stores have been attacked by Islamists, according to local Minya activists. Bandits from the nearby deserts joined the looting and burning, they said. To ensure the spread of fear, the attackers torched houses in all Christian neighborhoods, not just in one or two.

Among the homes torched was that of Father Angelos, an 80-year-old Orthodox priest who lives close to the monastery. Yoannis' home was spared a similar fate by his Muslim neighbors. A 60-year-old Christian who fired from his roof to ward off a mob was dragged down and killed, the activists said.

"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."

Those who remain pay armed Muslim neighbors to protect them. Yoannis said his brother paid with a cow and a water buffalo. Most Christian businesses have been closed for weeks.

Armed men can be seen 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 are 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 their names not be published for fear of reprisals.

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

None of the town's churches celebrated Mass for a month, until Wednesday, when one was held in one of the monastery's two churches. About 25 attended, down from the usual 500 or more.

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

Like other Christians in town, he said police and authorities were helpless to intervene.

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