ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Before an ambush last week that killed more than two dozen Egyptians going to church, Christians in Egypt's Minya province were already under repeated assault. One attack last year erupted over a rumor and ended with a burned home and an assault on an elderly woman. NPR's Jane Arraf brings us her story.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: There's a cardboard box of baby chickens and what passes for Suad Thabet's living room. She and her family have been living in the concrete shell of an unfinished house since they were expelled from their village last year. From a bench on a concrete floor, she can see the local monastery across a field and says, after what happened, it makes her feel safe. She's a Coptic Christian, a kindly 70-year-old. Although it's painful for her to tell the story, she wants people to know.
SUAD THABET: (Through interpreter) We were sitting down to dinner. And then the house became full of people. Each one of them had a knife or a gun. They started shooting in the house.
ARRAF: When they started beating her 79-year-old husband, she screamed.
THABET: (Through interpreter) Then they caught me out and stripped me. I was standing naked in front of them. They brought my son's wife from upstairs with her children and started beating her all over her body. And then they dragged me naked through the street.
ARRAF: Even then, that wasn't all. The mob set fire to her house and stabbed her grandson. The most shocking thing was they were people they'd known for years - neighbors and childhood friends of her son.
It was because of a rumor that her son, Ashraf Abdo, was involved with a married woman who was Muslim. Abdo says that's not true. He says extremism has increased in Karm, a mostly Muslim village, even in the police. He says the Christians are easy targets.
ASHRAF ABDO: (Through interpreter) There are only a few Christians in Karm. And we're poor and simple. They know even if they hit us or curse us, we will keep quiet.
ARRAF: But the attack shocked the entire country. This time the church decided it would be quiet no longer. In many other provincial capital, I talked to the Coptic churches Bishop Makarios. He says the church has refused a government request to keep the case out of court and use local mediation. That process often leads to victims being pressured into a settlement to keep the peace.
MAKARIOS: (Through interpreter) Her case is the first time the church said no to a mediated settlement. And it forced the state to take the legal way. They tried to hide this and make it go away.
ARRAF: The court case has been suspended twice. It's now expected to be reopened. Minya has the largest percentage of Christians in Egypt, more than 20 percent in some villages. It's also been a center of Muslim extremism. Bishop Makarios says of all the attacks against Christians, this was different.
MAKARIOS: (Through interpreter) What happened is different than killing and destroying churches, shops and houses and discrimination and jobs and universities. This we endure, and we overcome. But this humiliation - what is left if you strip a lady from her clothes?
ARRAF: In her house, Thabet is dressed modestly in the tradition of village Christian women. Her hair covered with a tattered gray scarf. For 50 years, she said no one in the village had ever seen above her ankles. But she says worse than being stripped was that the attack has separated her family.
THABET: (Through interpreter) We tried to go home. And they said, don't enter the village. It's not your village.
ARRAF: Her elder son moved to Cairo with his wife and children. The army rebuilt their house in the village. But they have no furniture and no money. Thabet introduces her granddaughters as they come back from Sunday school. You can see the faded cross tattooed on her wrist as she hugs the youngest. She believes God will deliver justice but says he's given her courage to stand up for her rights. Jane Arraf in Minya province, Egypt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.