Gunshots crackle on a hot day in August. The residents of Mallawi, a town in southern Egypt, talk about whether people are raiding the police station or robbing the bank. Bands of young men in civilian clothes roam the rubble-strewn streets with assault rifles. After dark it’s best to stay indoors.
Two churches, as well as Christians’ shops and houses, have been burned here. In front of the charred altar in the Catholic church, a clock lies on a pile of debris, stopped at two minutes to five. A nearby statue of a Madonna and child has lost its heads. The priest’s robing room has been ransacked: the only things left are two cardboard boxes of Christmas ornaments and a wardrobe full of white cassocks.
The church was the last part of the complex to come under attack. Most of the pews are intact as neighbours managed to drive the attackers out before they torched the rest of the building. The priest’s office and apartments, as well as a school that was due to open next month, are all blackened, their contents missing or burned beyond recognition. The neighbouring streets are flooded with muddy water from efforts to douse the flames the night before. Water had to be brought from outside the complex because the attackers had smashed the water main, one parishioner said. The fire brigade didn’t come.
Across Egypt, as people stay at home observing the 7 p.m. curfew, many are relieved that the country is back in the hands of the generals. Others ask how it came to this. Bishop Macarios of the diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas refers to the judgment of Solomon, comparing the Muslim Brotherhood to the false mother who agrees to the idea of cutting the baby in half. Many people share his frustration at the Brotherhood’s not accepting political defeat (and often express it more venomously). The analogy doesn’t address the brutal crackdown that left hundreds of people dead, most of them peaceful protesters. The police are still rounding up Morsi’s supporters. Many have gone into hiding.
Many of Egypt’s Christians are living in fear, too. Copts, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the population, have been on the receiving end of much of Morsi’s supporters’ rage. Many Copts backed the movement that led to the president’s ouster on 3 July, though they’ve never been in the running for government. Historically, they have been politically silent, but like many Egyptians became more active in politics after 25 January 2011. John Kafoury, a member of a Minya church engineering committee, said: ‘We went out on the streets on 30 June and we knew the army could be against us. The army could have been with Morsi. We went out and we knew the police could be against us, Morsi’s police. We went out as Egyptians holding the Egyptian flag demanding bread, freedom and social justice. What we demanded on 25 January 2011, we demanded on 30 June.’
In many places in southern Egypt, despite the sectarian violence, Muslim and Christian neighbours have stood together. ‘Is this a Christian house?’ looters in Mallawi asked. The Muslim neighbours on either side didn’t answer. Khaleel, a young Christian man who didn’t want to give his last name, has joined a vigilante group to defend his home from attacks by Morsi’s supporters. The group is made up of Muslims and Christians. But people are thinking more about their religious differences these days, Khaleel says. ‘Now children will ask you, are you Muslim or are you Christian?’