Egypt's largest Christian community threatened as Islamists take over town

DALGA, Egypt - The Coptic Orthodox
priest would only talk to his visitor
after hiding from the watchful eyes of
the bearded Muslim outside, who
sported a pistol bulging from under his
robe.
So Father Yoannis moved behind a wall
in the charred skeleton of an ancient
monastery to describe how it was
torched by Islamists and then looted
when they took over this southern
Egyptian town following the ouster of
the country's president.
"The fire in the monastery burned
intermittently for three days. The
looting continued for a week. At the
end, not a wire or an electric switch is
left," Yoannis told The Associated
Press. The monastery's 1,600-year-old
underground chapel was stripped of
ancient icons and the ground was dug
up on the belief that a treasure was
buried there.
"Even the remains of ancient and
revered saints were disturbed and
thrown around," he said.
A town of some 120,000 — including
20,000 Christians — Dalga has been
outside government control since
hard-line supporters of the Islamist
Mohammed Morsi drove out police
and occupied their station on July 3,
the day Egypt's military chief removed
the president in a popularly supported
coup. It was part of a wave of attacks
in the southern Minya province that
targeted Christians, their homes and
businesses.
Since then, the radicals have imposed
their grip on Dalga, twice driving off
attempts by the army to send in
armored personnel carriers by
showering them with gunfire.
Their hold points to the power of hard-
line Islamists in southern Egypt even
after Morsi's removal — and their
determination to defy the military-
backed leadership that has replaced
him.
With the army and police already
fighting a burgeoning militant
insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, there
are growing signs that a second
insurgency could erupt in the south —
particularly in Minya and Assiut
provinces, both Islamist strongholds
and both home to Egypt's two largest
Christian communities.
The takeover of Dalga has been
disastrous for the Christian community
in the town, located 270 kilometers
(160 miles) south of Cairo in Minya,
on the edge of the Nile Valley near the
cliffs that mark the start of the desert.
In the initial burst of violence, the
town's only Catholic church was
ransacked and set ablaze, like the
Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St.
Abraam. The Anglican church was also
looted.
Some 40 Christian families have fled
Dalga since, Yoannis said. Nearly 40
Christian-owned homes and stores
have been attacked by Islamists,
according to local Minya activists.
Bandits from the nearby deserts joined
the looting and burning, they said. To
ensure the spread of fear, the attackers
torched houses in all Christian
neighborhoods, not just in one or
two.
Among the homes torched was that of
Father Angelos, an 80-year-old
Orthodox priest who lives close to the
monastery. Yoannis' home was spared
a similar fate by his Muslim neighbors.
A 60-year-old Christian who fired from
his roof to ward off a mob was
dragged down and killed, the activists
said.
"Even if we had firearms, we would be
reluctant to use them," said Yoannis.
"We cannot take a life. Firing in the air
may be our limit."
Those who remain pay armed Muslim
neighbors to protect them. Yoannis
said his brother paid with a cow and a
water buffalo. Most Christian
businesses have been closed for
weeks.
Armed men can be seen in the streets,
and nearly every day Islamists hold
rallies at a stage outside the police
station, demanding Morsi's
reinstatement.
Most Christians remain indoors as
much as possible, particularly during
the rallies. They say they are routinely
insulted on the streets by Muslims,
including children. Christian women
stay home at all times, fearing
harassment by the Islamists, according
to multiple Christians who spoke to the
AP. Most requested that their names
not be published for fear of reprisals.
"The Copts in Dalga live in utter
humiliation," said local rights activist
Ezzat Ibrahim. "They live in horror and
cannot lead normal lives."
None of the town's churches held
Mass for a month, until Wednesday,
when one was held in one of the
monastery's two churches. About 25
attended, down from the usual 500 or
more.
"They don't want to see any Christian
with any power, no matter how
modest," Yoannis said of the hard-
liners now running Dalga. "They only
want to see us poor without money, a
trade or a business to be proud of."
Like other Christians in town, he said
police and authorities were helpless to
intervene.
"Everyone keeps telling me that I
should alert the police and the army,"
he said. "As if I hadn't done that
already."
At intervals, the 33-year-old father of
three would stop talking, move
carefully to the edge of a wall, stick his
head out to check if someone was
coming.
His big worry was the bearded Muslim
at the gate, Saber Sarhan Askar.
Skinny with hawk-like hazelnut eyes,
Askar is said by Dalga's Christians to
have taken part in the torching and
looting of the monastery. Outside the
monastery that day, Askar was telling
priests he was there to protect it. But
the orders he yelled to other priests
left no doubt who was in charge.
"Bring us tea!" he barked at one priest.
"I need something cold to drink!" he
screamed at another soon after.
School teacher and part-time
entrepreneur Kromer Ishaq fled Dalga
a day after the Islamists took over. The
Islamists already were accusing his
father in a family blood feud — a
charge that could prompt the killing of
Ishaq. Then on the night of the
takeover, Ishaq's gold shop was
broken into and looted.
The son of a wealthy family, Ishaq fled
with his extended family all the way to
the Nile Delta north of Cairo, where he
is now looking for work.
"I used to employ people and now I'm
looking for work. I once lived in a
house I own and now I live in a rented
apartment. You ask me what life is like?
It's like black tar," Ishaq said by
telephone.
Dalga is the most extreme example of
Islamist power in Minya — no other
towns are known to be under such
extreme lockdown. But the province in
general has seen a surge in Islamist
violence since the coup against Morsi.
In the province, 35 churches have
been attacked, including 19 completely
gutted by fire. At least six Christian
schools and five orphanages have been
destroyed, along with five courthouses,
seven police stations and six city
council buildings. A museum in the city
of Malawi was looted and ransacked.
On Aug. 11, policemen suspected of
loyalty to Morsi stormed the provincial
police headquarters in Minya city.
They dragged out the province's
security chief and his top aide from
their offices and ordered them both to
leave the province. They did.
Minya was the epicenter of an Islamic
militant insurgency against the rule of
autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the 1980s
and 1990s. It remains a stronghold of
Islamists, including the extremist
Gamaa Islamiya group. It also has the
largest Christian community of any of
Egypt's 29 provinces — at 35 percent
of Minya's 4 million people, compared
to around 10 percent nationwide.
Over Egypt's past 2 ½ years of turmoil,
Islamist strength has grown. Hundreds
of jailed radicals who purportedly
forswore violence — though not their
hard-line ideology — were freed after
Mubarak's 2011 fall and given the
freedom to recruit. The south has seen
a flood of heavy weapons smuggled
across the desert from neighboring
Libya.
A top Interior Ministry official in Cairo
said the Minya police force suffered
large-scale infiltration by pro-Morsi
Islamists. The local force is now under
investigation by the ministry. The
official spoke on condition of
anonymity because the probe was still
undergoing.
The Minya security chief who fled the
province, as well as two top aides,
were replaced on Wednesday for what
the Interior Ministry called the failure
to maintain law and order.
In the security vacuum, it has been
Christians largely paying the price.
Christian businessman Talaat Bassili
recounted how on Aug. 15, dozens of
men, some armed, stormed his home
in the city of Malawi, not far from
Dalga. For three hours, with no police
or army in sight, the attackers made
off with TV sets, washing machines,
mobile phones, jewelry and cash.
The attackers descended on the house
from the scaffoldings of a mosque next
door. In footage from Bassili's security
camera, shown to AP, men in robes
and boys in sandals try to force their
way into the house, then finally blast
away the lock with Kalashnikov assault
rifles. Some loaded their loot into a
donkey cart.
Later, the footage shows Bassili, his
wife Nahed Samaan — in a nightgown
and a house robe — and son Fady
leaving to take refuge with a neighbor.
A week later, Bassili said a man called
him on his mobile phone to ask
whether he wanted to buy some of his
stuff back.