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Egypt’s churches charred to shells

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Sima Diab
Father Ayoub Youssef stands among the burned ruins of the annex building belonging to St. George Coptic Catholic Church in Delga, Egypt on Dec. 7, 2014. 'We have the Brotherhood, Salafis and thugs,' Father Youssef says, 'and we have more than 60 percent illiteracy, which is a time-bomb.'
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Sima Diab
The burned remains of manuscripts and volumes of Islamic and Christian literature inside St. George Coptic Catholic Church library in Delga, Egypt, Dec. 7, 2014. Says Father Ayoub Youssef: 'We have a saying -- open a school, close a prison.'
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Sima Diab
A man leads children in song during Sunday-school class at a makeshift prayer hall underneath Prince Tadros Church in Minya, Dec. 7, 2014.
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The charred remains of a mural in the Virgin Mary and St. Abrahm's Monastery in Delga, Egypt on Dec. 6, 2014. 'For one month and two days we didn't see the police,' said Father Abrahm Tannis.
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Father Abrahm Tannis stands inside St. Mary's church in the Virgin Mary and St. Abrahm's Monastery, Dec. 6, 2014. 'They tried to destroy the cross on top of the church. They were shooting at the cross but the cross refused to leave us,' he said.

DELGA, Egypt – Two downed electrical towers, two armored personnel carriers, and stacks of old tires form an improvised gate to this impoverished Upper Egypt city.

Graffiti on its buildings denounce the police as “thugs” and “dancing prostitutes.”

Islamist militants ruled over Delga’s 120,000 people – a fourth of them Christians – for more than a month in 2013, before Egyptian security forces regained control.

Even today, a visit to one ravaged Christian church requires an armed escort by three truckloads of twitchy police and shotgun-toting local guards in ankle-length gowns.

Father Ayoub Youssef stands in the charred library of St. George Coptic Catholic Church, where pages ripped from religious books carpet the floor.

“We are leaving everything as it is,” he explains, “to bear witness to what happened.

“There used to be 3,000 books here. But what the preachers of darkness don’t know is that this library contained Islamic books, too, even a copy of the Quran.”

He points with a wooden cross to where flames towered 100 feet overhead.

In July 2013, as Egyptian army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi announced the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsy, rampaging Islamists looted and torched the church’s library and annex.

Father Youssef remembers the crowd’s chants – the Coptic pope was “the head of the cobra,” “the Islamic caliphate is coming” – and one victim “dragged through the streets by a tractor.”

Muslim neighbors saved the church from being burned too, he suspects, only because their homes closely surround it.

Across Egypt, Islamists torched some 50 Christian churches and countless Christian schools, orphanages, shops and homes during that vicious summer. The worst violence hit here in Minya province where, Christians say, 12 churches burned.

The army and the new government, now led by al-Sisi, vowed to rebuild the churches.

Seventeen months later, many remain blackened shells.

Ishak Ibrahim of Egypt Initiative for Personal Rights, a human-rights group, says the process is “very slow.”

“Some (Christians) are still praying in the ruins,” he says, and some “are renovating by themselves.”

An engineer told Father Youssef that his church must “be demolished and rebuilt, from A to Z.”

Praying ‘on the sand’

Nearby, Father Abrahm Tannis walks through burned and broken debris in the 1,600-year-old Coptic monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abrahm.

“Everything was destroyed, everything but the walls,” he says of the monastery and its three churches. The attackers “stole everything. Whatever they couldn’t take with them, they destroyed. Then they set it on fire … they even took our icons.”

Looters dug in the floors and grounds for antiquities, he says; others shot at a cross atop the monastery “but the cross refused to leave us.”

“For one month and two days, we didn’t see the police,” Father Tannis says. “Security is good now, they arrested anyone who had any involvement. … Now, when anyone does anything wrong, they send them behind the sun” – to prison, he means.

“The military engineers came here seven or eight times, they analyzed and wrote reports … they say we are coming up next. Only God knows when.”

Until then, he says, “we pray on the sand.”

‘The street of pain’

Minya has a history of violence; Islamist insurgents turned much of the province into a no-go zone in the late 1980s and ’90s.

After Morsy’s ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies — Gama’a al Islamiya, a onetime terror group, and ultra-religious Salafis – protested in Minya’s capital and in Cairo.

Those groups “were more powerful than the police and army inside Minya,” says Sherif Zekry, a deacon at Prince Tadros Church in Minya. “They said every day in their sit-ins that they will attack the church.”

They did, setting it ablaze.

Driving past the gutted church, now wrapped in construction scaffolding, Zekry points to a dozen shops that were looted or destroyed on what he calls “the street of pain.” He watched looters at one Christian pharmacy “fighting over shampoo and things like that.”

A Molotov cocktail hit his home beside a Christian school: “My children were very scared. It is very painful to see this happen to the place you live in and where you pray.”

Today, children attend Sunday school at Prince Tadros as it is being rebuilt.

St. Moussa Church, not far away, remains gutted. Inside its charred walls, Zekry plays a smartphone video showing flames roaring from broken windows: “It burned for 12 hours and a fireman never came.”

The army is expected to decide in February whether to demolish or repair it.

Zekry believes Muslims protected some Christian property in Minya; otherwise, “we would have all died. God intervened that day, because much worse could have happened.”

Still, the province remains tense: On Jan. 6, the Orthodox Christmas Eve, gunmen killed two police guarding a church in Minya.

‘It’s a time-bomb’

As a whispery fog blankets the Nile in Minya, a century-old wooden boat floats along the riverbank, its charred beams like a skeleton’s ribcage.

The boat, called a Dahabiya, was a luxury craft popular for river travel in the 19th and 20th centuries. Locals say an Indian maharaja owned this one and loaned it to American missionaries; he fell in love with a Christian girl and tried to impress her by donating the boat to an Evangelical church here in Minya.

A Christian and a Muslim died when a mob torched the Dahabiya and another boat during the rioting, according to a witness who remains too fearful to give his name.

In November, when Islamists again called for a revolt, he says he felt “the fear in my bones. … Now, I think the security force is regaining its strength.”

Residents of another provincial town, Malawi, use words like “war zone” to recall how Islamists and street thugs attacked churches, shops and an antiquity-filled museum there.

When the mob set fire to the 150-year-old Evangelical Presbyterian Church, it burned quickly and its twin bell towers collapsed.

Church member Maryhan Mounir coordinates the army’s rebuilding of the church. “We pay for some things, and the army pays for some things,” she says. But security remains a concern: “We will have to put metal bars on our windows … have cameras all over the church.”

Soldiers rebuilt the altar and prayer section of Malawi’s Holy Family Catholic Church, according to Father Malak Gerges, who fled with nothing but his clothes when a mob attacked.

“It made our faith stronger,” he insists. “The church is just stone. The people are its heart.”

In Delga, Father Youssef says education can help to change minds: “There is a concept we believe in – open a school, close a prison. … We just had a cultural salon where we discussed ‘Les Miserables,’ ” Victor Hugo’s classic novel about crime, revolution and redemption.

The police are working hard to restore calm, he insists.

Yet, the future worries him: “We have the Brotherhood, the Salafis and thugs and we have more than 60 percent illiteracy, which is a time-bomb.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review’s foreign correspondent. Email her at [email protected].

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