Amid escalating violence against Egypt’s Copts, churches in Minya, located in upper Egypt, cancelled Sunday Mass for the first time in 1,600 years. Other churches in Minya also didn’t hold prayer services.
“We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years,” Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram Monastery in Degla, just south of Minya, told the al-Masry al-Youm daily.
He said supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi destroyed the monastery, which includes three churches, one of which is an archaeological site. “One of the extremists wrote on the monastery’s wall, ‘donate [this] to the martyrs’ mosque,’” Lotfy added.
Copts, the largest indigenous Christian minority in the Middle East and North Africa, make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s total population of some 90 million people. One of the world’s oldest Christian communities, they have generally kept a low-profile, but have become more politically active since Mubarak was ousted and sought to ensure fair treatment in the aftermath. They regularly face violence and discrimination within Egyptian society.
Since Wednesday, when Egyptian security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-in camps and more than 900 have died in ensuing clashes, Islamists have attacked dozens of Coptic churches as well as homes and businesses owned by the community. Nearly 58 churches were looted and torched by Islamist rioters since Sunday. The campaign of intimidation appears to be a warning to Christians outside Cairo to stand down from political activism.
Two Christians have been killed since last Wednesday, including a taxi driver who strayed into a protest by Morsi supporters in Alexandria and another man who was shot to death by Islamists in the southern province of Sohag, according to security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.
The attacks served as a reminder that Islamists, while on the defensive in Cairo, maintain influence and the ability to stage violence in provincial strongholds with a large minority of Christians.
Many Morsi supporters say Christians played a disproportionately large role in the days of mass rallies, with millions demanding that he step down ahead of the coup.
Despite the violence, Egypt’s Coptic Christian church on Friday renewed its commitment to the new political order, saying in a statement that it stood by the army and the police in their fight against “the armed violent groups and black terrorism.”
In a statement Saturday, the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, said the Muslim Brotherhood was fomenting sectarian clashes around Egypt. The pope has reportedly been in hiding since rioters began targeting the minority group.
AP contributed to this report.