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Egypt: Islamists hit Christian churches

Sunday - 8/18/2013, 5:34pm  ET

Rows of display cases are broken and empty at the Malawi Antiquities Museum after it was ransacked and looted between the evening of Thursday, Aug. 15 and the morning of Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 in Malawi, south of Minya, Egypt, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. The interim Cabinet authorized police to use deadly force against anyone targeting police and state institutions on Thursday. The violence capped off a week that saw more than 700 people killed across the country. (AP Photo/Roger Anis, El Shorouk Newspaper) EGYPT OUT

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- After torching a Franciscan school, Islamists paraded three nuns on the streets like "prisoners of war" before a Muslim woman offered them refuge. Two other women working at the school were sexually harassed and abused as they fought their way through a mob.

In the four days since security forces cleared two sit-in camps by supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Islamists have attacked dozens of Coptic churches along with homes and businesses owned by the Christian minority. The campaign of intimidation appears to be a warning to Christians outside Cairo to stand down from political activism.

Christians have long suffered from discrimination and violence in Muslim majority Egypt, where they make up 10 percent of the population of 90 million. Attacks increased after the Islamists rose to power in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from power, emboldening extremists. But Christians have come further under fire since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted on July 3, sparking a wave of Islamist anger led by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

Nearly 40 churches have been looted and torched, while 23 others have been attacked and heavily damaged since Wednesday, when chaos erupted after Egypt's military-backed interim administration moved in to clear two camps packed with protesters calling for Morsi's reinstatement, killing scores of protesters and sparking deadly clashes nationwide.

One of the world's oldest Christian communities has generally kept a low-profile, but has become more politically active since Mubarak was ousted and Christians sought to ensure fair treatment in the aftermath.

Many Morsi supporters say Christians played a disproportionately large role in the days of mass rallies, with millions demanding that he step down ahead of the coup.

Despite the violence, Egypt's Coptic Christian church renewed its commitment to the new political order Friday, saying in a statement that it stood by the army and the police in their fight against "the armed violent groups and black terrorism."

While the Christians of Egypt have endured attacks by extremists, they have drawn closer to moderate Muslims in some places, in a rare show of solidarity.

Hundreds from both communities thronged two monasteries in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo to thwart what they had expected to be imminent attacks on Saturday, local activist Girgis Waheeb said. Activists reported similar examples elsewhere in regions south of Cairo, but not enough to provide effective protection of churches and monasteries.

Waheeb, other activists and victims of the latest wave of attacks blame the police as much as hard-line Islamists for what happened. The attacks, they said, coincided with assaults on police stations in provinces like Bani Suef and Minya, leaving most police pinned down to defend their stations or reinforcing others rather than rushing to the rescue of Christians under attack.

Another Christian activist, Ezzat Ibrahim of Minya, a province also south of Cairo where Christians make up around 35 percent of the population, said police have melted away from seven of the region's nine districts, leaving the extremists to act with near impunity.

Two Christians have been killed since Wednesday, including a taxi driver who strayed into a protest by Morsi supporters in Alexandria and another man who was shot to death by Islamists in the southern province of Sohag, according to security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

The attacks served as a reminder that Islamists, while on the defensive in Cairo, maintain influence and the ability to stage violence in provincial strongholds with a large minority of Christians.

Gamaa Islamiya, the hard-line Islamist group that wields considerable influence in provinces south of Cairo, denied any link to the attacks. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has led the defiant protest against Morsi's ouster, has condemned the attacks, spokesman Mourad Ali said.

Sister Manal is the principal of the Franciscan school in Bani Suef. She was having breakfast with two visiting nuns when news broke of the clearance of the two sit-in camps by police, killing hundreds. In an ordeal that lasted about six hours, she, sisters Abeer and Demiana and a handful of school employees saw a mob break into the school through the wall and windows, loot its contents, knock off the cross on the street gate and replace it with a black banner resembling the flag of al-Qaida.

By the time the Islamists ordered them out, fire was raging at every corner of the 115-year-old main building and two recent additions. Money saved for a new school was gone, said Manal, and every computer, projector, desk and chair was hauled away. Frantic SOS calls to the police, including senior officers with children at the school, produced promises of quick response but no one came.

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