BENI MAZAR, Egypt – The fire burned all night long. It was only after desperate town residents borrowed the keys to a fire truck that they were able to quell the blaze. By then, the evangelical church was all but destroyed.
It was one of more than 60 churches that have been attacked, vandalized and, in many cases, set aflame across Egypt in a surge of violence against Christians that has followed the bloody Aug. 14 raid by Egyptian security forces on two Islamist protest camps in Cairo.
The attacks, most of them in Egypt’s Nile Valley, have lent legitimacy to the military-backed government’s claims that it is fighting a war against terrorism.
But a week after the attacks, the Egyptian government has yet to investigate any of the incidents or provide any additional security to most churches, Christian activists and church officials said.
Visits to flame-ravaged churches and interviews with activists and Western officials also raised questions about whether the Muslim Brotherhood, blamed by the government for carrying out the violence, was actively involved.
“We have seen zero indication that the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization is organizing these attacks,” said a high-ranking Western official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The official said the blame more likely rested with Islamist vigilantes rather than Brotherhood members acting on orders.
In places such as Beni Mazar – a town on the Nile River about 160 miles south of Cairo, in Minya province, which is riven by sectarian tensions – Christian residents made clear their sense of fear and anger. They said they believed Islamists had attacked the churches in retaliation for the police raids on Islamist protest camps in Cairo and also to punish Egypt’s Christian minority for its support of the July 3 coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi. On the day of the raids, Islamists also attacked police stations across the country.
But in interviews Monday and Tuesday, many residents suggested that the police had been complicit, at least through a failure to respond.
“Until now, we have not heard about any real or serious investigation,” said Mina Thabet, an activist with the Maspero Youth Union, a Christian activist group, which has charted the attacks that have taken place nationwide since Aug. 14.
About “five or six” bearded Islamists with assault rifles broke through the evangelical church gate in Beni Mazar around midday Aug. 14, the owner of a Christian bookstore next door said in an interview this week. But he also said those Islamists worked in coordination with dozens of “thugs” who arrived in pickup trucks and didn’t look like Islamists.
The accomplices carried off thousands of dollars’ worth of computer, video and audio equipment, as well as air-conditioning units, before setting the church on fire, according to the owner, who for security reasons would only permit the use of his first name, Ayman.
Later, in the same neighborhood, plainclothes police officers armed with assault rifles came running up to two Washington Post reporters as they moved to inspect the damage at a Christian charity that had been torched next to the police station. The station’s police chief, who gave his name as Gen. Samir, pointed out that his forces had also come under attack in the violence of Aug. 14, and he provided a thick stack of pictures to document one such assault, on a local headquarters for the traffic police.
But Samir said his men had not visited the three churches and other Christian properties that were attacked within blocks of their headquarters. “To do what?” the police chief said, adding that an investigation was the district prosecutor’s job.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s military-backed authorities arrested the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme leader Tuesday, dealing a serious blow to the embattled movement,
The Brotherhood’s spiritual guide, Mohammed Badie, was arrested in an apartment in the Cairo district of Nasr City, close to the site of a sit-in encampment that was forcibly cleared by security forces last week, triggering violence that killed hundreds of people.