Egypt: Why Are the Churches Burning?

Source: New York Review of Books

p>On a recent afternoon this month, in a busy downtown Cairo street, armed men exchanged gunfire, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and freely wielded knives in broad daylight. The two-hour fight, which began as an attempt by some shop-owners to extort the customers of others, left eighty-nine wounded and many stores destroyed. In the new Egypt, incidents like this are becoming commonplace. On many nights I go to bed to the sound of gunfire, and each morning I leaf through newspapers anticipating more stories of crime. Stopped at gun-point; car stolen; head severed; kidnapped from school, held at ransom; armed men storm police station opening fire and killing four; prison cells unlocked—91 criminals on the loose. Many people I know have already bought guns; on street corners metal bludgeons are being sold for $3; and every week I receive an email, or SMS or Facebook message about a self-defense course, or purse-size electrocution tool, or new shipments of Mace. “These are dangerous times,” my mother told me recently as she handed me a Chinese-made YT-704 “super high voltage pulse generator.” “You have to take precautions, keep it in your bag.”

Even more worrying, it seems increasingly clear that a variety of groups have been encouraging the violence, in part by rekindling sectarian tensions that had disappeared during the Tahrir Square uprising, when Muslim and Coptic protesters protected one another against Mubarak’s thugs. Since then, there have been a series of attacks on Copts, and the perpetrators seem to include hardline Islamists (often referred to as Salafis), remnants of the former regime, and even, indirectly, some elements of the military now in charge, who have allowed these attacks to play out—all groups that in some way have an interest in disrupting a smooth transition to a freely elected civil government and democratic state.

On the weekend of May 7 and 8, in the Cairo district of Imbaba—an impoverished working-class neighborhood that has been a stronghold of militant Islamists in the past—a group of Salafis tried to force their way into Saint Mina Church, a local Coptic house of worship. They were demanding the release of a woman, Abeer, an alleged convert to Islam whom they claimed—without evidence—the church was holding against her will. (Christians here have long alleged that Islamists kidnap their girls, rape them, and force them to convert to Islam. In recent weeks, those allegations have grown. Now, some Salafis have been making similar charges about Copts.).

The day before, via Twitter, they had called on Muslims to come to the church to “free a Muslim sister,” and on Saturday night, a handful of Salafis and some thugs gathered outside the church, waving sticks and swords, chanting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest), provoking onlookers. A Christian man pulled out a gun and fired at them from a café nearby, and Christian residents from neighboring buildings followed suit, shooting from balconies. Before long, a battle had begun. The Muslim men and a growing crowd of hooligans brought out Molotov cocktails, rifles, handguns, bludgeons and knives. Eventually, the church was set on fire.


Read the entire article on the New York Review of Books website.


  1. George Patsourakos :

    We need to keep in mind that about 90 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million is Muslim. The Muslims hate the Coptic Orthodox Christians — who make up about 10 percent of the Egyptian population — and will do anything necessary to frighten them into leaving Egypt. That is why Muslims have lit churches on fire, in addition to committing many other violent acts against Christians in Egypt in recent years. The Muslims’ ultimate goal is to “free” Egypt of its Christian population.

    Unfortunately, the Egyptian police — even after the recent downfall of Egyptian President Mubarak — have tended to “look the other way” with respect to Islamic violence against Christians. If the Egyptian police would enforce the law and arrest and jail Muslim thugs, Egypt would not be having anywhere near the number of problems it has had in recent years.

  2. Wesley J. Smith :

    I fear the Middle East is the new Soviet Union for Orthodox and other Christians. There is little to restrain the violence anymore. I would support granting asylum to many Copts.

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