Egyptian Islamists Turn Their Rage Onto Christian Community

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Dozens of churches have been attacked across Egypt since the security crackdown on Islamist protesters began last week. Christians worry they are becoming the scapegoat among more extreme Islamists, who blame them for President Morsi's overthrow. Human rights groups are asking why the state isn't doing more to protect the Christian community.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

As if the situation in Egypt isn't complicated enough, the lawyer of former leader Hosni Mubarak says his client could be freed from prison this week. Some of the charges against Mubarak have expired, but the ex-president still faces other charges, including the killing of protestors before his 2011 ouster. More than 900 people have been killed since last week, when the military-led government started cracking down on supporters of the recently ousted Mohamed Morsi.

MONTAGNE: The circumstances of some deaths yesterday are especially murky. Thirty-six prisoners were killed in what the government says was an attempted escape by jailed Morsi supporters. His Muslim Brotherhood organization called it a massacre.

GREENE: Some fear that Egypt is on a path to civil war. Among the victims: Egypt's Christian minority. NPR's Leila Fadel reports on a wave of attacks against them.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It is Sunday, the day of prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FADEL: But instead of the sound of church bells, there is only the crunching of rubble, as people walk through the remains of the Church of the Archangel Michael in the village of Kerdasa, just outside Cairo.

REDA GABALLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Reda Gaballah walks us through the grounds. The three buildings for mass, baptisms and funerals are burned out, the walls completely black. On the floor are shards of marble, charred religious books and destroyed portraits of saints. The pews are turned over, some just ash now. A large cement cross that once stood on top of the church is in pieces on the ground amidst the debris.

GABALLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Reda says some 1,000 men came Wednesday, burst through the metal gate and destroyed this place of worship. They chanted: Islamic, Islamic, and he ran. He and five others escaped through the back door. They took refuge with Muslim neighbors and watched helplessly as the mob set fire to the buildings, tagged the walls and left behind a dangerous warning at the church's entrance, the words: and still - implying there is more to come.

GABALLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Reda's eyes water as he reads out the graffiti on the wall: Egypt is an Islamic country. Morsi is our president. You did this to yourselves.

I feel pain, he says. He blames the Muslim Brotherhood for this. And in the hours-long attack, no one came to help. Later, he learned that the police station had also been burned, ransacked and the policemen killed.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an Egyptian human rights group, has documented attacks on 44 churches since Wednesday. Eight schools were also attacked, along with two charities and at least one orphanage. And seven people have been killed in the religious violence.

The scale is unprecedented in Egypt's modern history. And the mostly Coptic Christian community - which makes up more than 10 percent of Egypt - is living in fear.

Michael Wahid Hanna an Egypt expert at The Century Foundation. He notes the attacks come after increased vitriol within rallying cries inside Brotherhood-led protests.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: And a lot of this rhetoric has found space in the Muslim Brotherhood's Egypt. It's incendiary. It's sectarian. It's bigoted. It indulges in the sectarian conspiracy theories about the role of Christians in terms of the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.

GABALLAH: The brutal reprisals, he says, are a direct result of that rhetoric.

HANNA: At a time of crisis, Christians are being made as very convenient scapegoats.

FADEL: There's long been friction between Christians and Muslims, but it intensified under Morsi. And Hanna says until now, the state barely acknowledged it existed.

HANNA: We've seen a shift now by the interim authorities to use the sectarianism of the Islamist current and the Morsi supporters as a weapon to be wielded in what is a propaganda war.

FADEL: The West has condemned Egypt's security forces for killing protesters. In response, Egypt's interim leaders are painting the security crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as a war on terrorism. They hold up the church attacks as proof. But Hanna says the government is also in part to blame. They've failed to protect Christian institutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

FADEL: Back in Kerdasa, Father Yusab Marcos won't come meet us at the destroyed grounds of the church. He is afraid. Later, we call him.

FATHER YUSAB MARCOS: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: We need protection, he tells us. I've been asking for even just one tank. He has nowhere to lead prayer now for the about 200 Christian families in the area.

MARCOS: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He asks: How can I deal with these people when my house is burned down and my sons are hurt? We love our country, and Muslims have stood by us. But there is too much cruelty now.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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