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Turmoil raises fresh fears for Egypt's Copts

A 60-year-old barber, Iskandar Toss, was shot dead and beheaded before his body was tied to a tractor and dragged through Delga village in the southern Egyptian province of Minya. An angry mob of Islamists then left his body in the street and a day later hung it in the middle of the village.

Toss is one of around a dozen Coptic Christians killed across Egypt since Wednesday, when Islamists launched attacks on churches and Christians' properties after security forces dispersed two sit-ins for supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi. Minya province is still dangerous as threats continue against Christians almost a week after attacks began, said activist Mina Thabet, founder of the Maspero Youth Union group.

"Right now, we are living in hell," Thabet said. Christians, who make up around 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people, have complained of discrimination for decades. However, attacks against Copts increased after Islamists rose to power following the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosny Mubarak. Hate speech on Islamist-owned television channels also increased after Morsi took office in June 2012.

"The situation was bad under Mubarak, it got worse under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the worst part began after Morsi took office," said Thabet. He says violence has taken a new turn since Morsi was ousted by the army on July 3. In his opinion the attacks are a punishment for the Christians' political stances as well as an attempt to economically drain Egypt's minority. Activists and researchers have said that at least 40 churches have been attacked since Wednesday, with half of them completely burnt out. Islamists also attacked houses and businesses owned by Christians, and at least seven were kidnapped.

"Christians are paying the price for practicing their right to protest," said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Ibrahim said the government failed to take any measures to prevent the attacks. He said he visited four churches that were attacked in the central province of Fayoum on Sunday, but there was no security nor government officials there, except one local council member. However, security was tight in the southern province of Assiut on Monday. A witness said security forces patrolled the city with 10 armoured vehicles, secured the churches and instructed shop owners to abide by the curfew.

Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros repeatedly expressed support for Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi even before Morsi was toppled. Last week, Tawadros expressed support for the police and army in their "fight against terrorism." Signs of fighting over the weekend were still obvious across Assiut, with burnt cars left in the middle of the streets, many shops destroyed and pro-Morsi graffiti on walls. "Egypt is Islamic" was written on the wall of a church, and on a nearby building "al-Sissi is a traitor."

"Since Morsi was in office, the anti-Christian discourse increased. Sectarian violence is not new in Egypt, but this is a new pattern," Ibrahim said. Earlier this month, Egyptian media hailed a local reconciliation meeting held after a fight between Muslim and Christian families in Beni Suef province.

Yet activists and Copts criticised the outcome of the meeting, which required Christians to withdraw the legal complaints they filed, and said the church should pay compensation for the Christians whose houses were attacked. Not only were the results unfair, but also the meeting was chaired by seven Muslims, Ibrahim said, including five members of the hard-line Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya group, a staunch supporter of Morsi. The group was accused of being involved in the Beni Suef attacks, but denied it.

Army chief al-Sissi has ordered the repair and reconstruction of all churches attacked over the past month. But for Christians this is not enough. Thabet, for example, criticised al-Sissi for not promising support for Christians in his latest appearance on Sunday, during which the minister vowed the army would confront violence. "I found the speech passionate, sensible and balanced. But I did not find any messages to assure Christians. The state still does not have the Christians on their priority list," Thabet said. "The tragic incidents we saw since the 2011 revolution were enough to show us Egypt was on the wrong path. Our next fight will be to get rid of the extremist ideologies planted over the past year."


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