By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in Egypt have begun to worship in a church that was destroyed by Islamists in violence that killed at least over 700 people nationwide.
"This will teach us to be better Christians," said Pastor Sameh Ibrahim in the torched church building of his Protestant congregation in Minya, the capital of Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt, where some 14 churches were reportedly attacked in recent days.
Across Egypt, at least 60 churches have been targeted, along with Christian schools, homes,businesses and even an orphanage, according to conservative estimates.
In the areas of Minya, Beni Suef, Fayoum and Assiut, Christian homes and businesses have received leaflets warning them to leave or face reprisals by Islamists, Christians said.
Christian homes and businesses in Minya have reportedly been marked with black X's to single them out for attack.
Yet in comments published Monday, August 19, Ibrahim made clear to his fellow believers in the burned-out church not to hate but to worship and pray to a peaceful God.
Local Christians told Dutch television that the fire brigade, police and army refused to intervene when Ibrahim's church was torched by apparently furious supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
"Moslims in the neighborhood only came to help burn the church," said reporter Jan Eikelboom, who interviewed the Christians for Nieuwsuur (Newshour) magazine of Dutch television.
Eikelboom noted that the fire brigade did not extinguish the fire, though they were just 200 meters (650) away from the ensuing inferno.
Hardliners of the Muslim Brotherhood party and other Islamists have accussed Christians of conspiring in the ouster of the previous president with some calling for retaliatory attacks.
Additionally, devoted Christians are targeted because of their faith, rights groups say.
A Facebook page purporting to belong to the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan, Cairo, reportedly stated: “The Pope of the Church is involved in the removal of the first elected Islamist president. The Pope of the Church alleges Islamic Shari'a is backwards, stubborn, and reactionary."
It wondered: “After all this people ask why they burn the churches.” The FJP has denied inciting sectarian violence, denouncing a number of Facebook pages as fake, reported Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a major advocacy group investigating the situation.
Muslim residents in Minya have also denied they attacked churches, saying those involved were "provocateurs of the government."
Among other sites being targeted in Minya was a cultural center of the Jesuits which was destroyed after it was attacked by some 500 people, witnesses said. Jesuits claimed the attack was organized by "an extremist mosque."
Witnesses also saw several Christian shops and a Coptic school burning. "For the destruction we see here, I have only one word: 'Pogrom'", said a clearly emotional Eikelboom.
Another pastor in the area shares his concerns. "We live in our church, so when someone attacks out congregation, it's as if our house is being attacked," said Pastor John Amin of the Meni Mazar church in published remarks.
"Our children are afraid," he added amid ongoing clashes.
Elsewhere, Islamists who attacked and looted a Franciscan school in Beni Suef paraded three nuns "like war prisoners", while two other female employees were sexually harassed and abused, rights activists said.
Though Christians gathered to pray in at least one church, many others were unable to hold Sunday services, while others reportedly canceled their services for fear of attack.
The Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, did not hold prayers on Sunday, August 19, for the first time in 1,600 years, Egyptian media reported.
At least seven Christians have being killed and many more injured since the ousting of former-President Mohamed Morsi by the military on July 3, according to CSW estimates.
There were even more tensions Monday, August 19, as at least 24 Egyptian policemen were killed in an ambush attack in the Sinai peninsula, according to medical sources and officials.
Police were in two buses which reportedly came under attack from suspected Islamic militants close to the town of Rafah on the Gaza border.
Egyptian authorities have reportedly confirmed that 36 Islamists died so far in police custody.
There was also concern among Christians over the future of the country as Egyptian judicial officials on Monday, August 19, ordered former President Hosni Mubarak freed from jail.
The move was seen as a stunning turnaround for the 85-year-old strongman who ruled the nation for three decades before being ousted in a popular revolution, with analysts warning that move that could plunge the troubled North African nation into further bloodshed.
Yet, despite concerns about more violence, Pastor Amin wants to continue leading his church. "We want to see our congregation grow," he added.
In a statement published earlier by BosNewsLife, the Egyptian Bible Society urged Christians to love their enemies. Egypt's main Bible publisher also asks prayers for the protection of Christians, their protection, and for forgiveness.
At least two Bible Society shops were torched while its headquarters in Cairo also came under attack, though there were no reports of injuries.
CSW spokesman Kiri Kankhwende told BosNewsLife that his group has pressured the government to increase protection of Copts, as most Christians are known in Egypt, despite reports that some moderate Muslims support churches.
"While it is deeply encouraging to hear of moderate Muslims coming to the assistance of their Christian neighbors, the responsibility to protect lies ultimately with the Egyptian authorities," he said.
"We therefore renew our call for the interim government to ensure comprehensive security to all Egyptians, and also urge and pray for peace and reconciliation,” he added.
Kankhwende said the "sectarian targeting of the Coptic community by Morsi supporters, in misplaced retaliation for the actions of the army, cannot be divorced from the continuing campaign of defamation and disinformation emanating from key Brotherhood figures regarding the Church's role in Morsi's ousting."
Both the "violence" and the "disinformation that fuels it" are "unacceptable and should be condemned in the strongest terms," Kankhwende said adding that his Christian group send "condolences to those who have lost loved ones, regardless of their religious or political affiliation."
Copts, as most Christians are known in Egypt, comprise roughly 10 percent of the country's heavily Muslim population of 83 million people.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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