CAIRO (AP) — With a mob of Muslim extremists on their tail, the Christian businessman and his nephew climbed up on the roof and ran for their lives, jumping from building to building in their southern Egyptian village. Finally they ran out of rooftops.
Forced back onto the street, they were overwhelmed by several dozen men. The attackers hacked them with axes and beat them with clubs and tree limbs, killing Emile Naseem, 41. The nephew survived with wounds to his shoulders and head and recounted the chase to The Associated Press.
The mob’s rampage through the village of Nagaa Hassan, burning dozens of Christian houses and stabbing to death three other Christians as well, came two days after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power. It was no coincidence the attackers focused on Naseem and his family: He was the village’s most prominent campaigner calling for Morsi’s removal.
Some Christians are paying the price for their activism against Morsi and his Islamist allies in a backlash over his ouster last week.
Since then, there has been a string of attacks on Christians in provinces that are strongholds of hard-liners. In the Sinai Peninsula, where militant groups run rampant, militants gunned down a priest in a drive-by shooting as he walked in a public market.
Egypt’s Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population, long shunned politics for fear of reprisals, relying on their church to make their case to those in power. That changed in the revolutionary fervor when autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, as Christians started to demand a say in the country’s direction.
But they took it to a new level during Morsi’s year in office and the empowerment of his Islamist allies. The new Coptic Christian pope, Tawadros II, enthroned in November, openly criticized the president. He told Christians they were free to actively participate in politics and that the church will not discourage them.
“The Christians have emerged from under the robes of the clergy and will never go back,” said Ezzat Ibrahim, an activist from Minya, a southern province with a large Christian community.
It was a risky gamble for a minority that has long felt vulnerable, with its most concentrated communities often living in the same rural areas where the most vehement and vocal Islamists hold sway.
During Morsi’s year in office, some of his hard-line allies increasingly spoke of Christians as enemies of Islam and warned them to remember they are a minority. When the wave of protests against Morsi began on June 30, Brotherhood media depicted it as dominated by Christians — and to hard-liners, it smacked of Christians rising up against a Muslim ruler.
The worst anti-Christian backlash since Morsi’s July 3 ouster was the attack in Nagaa Hassan, a dusty village on the west bank of the Nile River, not far from the most majestic ancient Egyptian archaeological sites in the city of Luxor.
The body of a Muslim villager was discovered at dawn on July 5. The cry went out around the village that Christians killed him. A mob of several hundred, led by men wearing the hallmark long beards of ultraconservative Salafis as well as more extreme movements, went on a rampage, according to witnesses and security officials speaking to the AP.
They smashed the windows and doors of Christian homes, ransacked Christian-owned stores and set them ablaze — damaging about 30 homes and stores in all. Muslim residents who tried to stop them were brushed aside, sometimes threatened with violence as well. At least a dozen Christian families took refuge in the local Church of St. John The Baptist, the church’s priest, Father Vassilios, told the AP.
The crowd targeted in particular Naseem, besieging the apartment building of his cousins where he and his wife hid. Their three children had been taken earlier to a relative’s home for their safety. The mob set fires in the building, while the families with women and children fled to the upper floors.
Security forces pulled up to the building, backing an armored personnel carrier up to the entrance to evacuate those inside, according to witnesses and activists briefed on the day’s events. But the mob, outnumbering police, refused to let the men inside leave — so the police told the families they would only take the women and children, she said.
Naseem and several other men initially put on women’s clothes to escape detection by the mob waiting close by for the police to leave so it could set upon the men, said el-Ameer, the nephew,
The police still refused to take the men, fearing the mob outside would see through the ruse and attack the armored police car that came to evacuate the Christians, said el-Ameer and activists. Martha Zekry, Naseem’s wife, begged the police to take her husband, pleading with them that he would not survive if left behind. The officer in charge said he would come back for Naseem. He never did.
Once the police pulled away with the women and children, the attackers stormed the building. Naseem tore off the women’s clothes and fled to the rooftops with his nephew, al-Ameer said. Naseem’s cousins, Romani and Muhareb Nosehi, and a neighbor Rasem Tadros, never made it out of the building, stabbed and beaten to death on the spot.
Naseem’s friends and family say he was targeted because of his activism against Morsi. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, he was energetically collecting signatures in the village for Tamarod, or “Rebel,” the youth-led activist campaign that collected signatures nationwide on a petition demanding Morsi’s removal. It organized the June 30 protests that brought out millions.
“Emile was the de facto Tamarod leader in the village and that did not escape the notice of the militants,” said Naseem’s best friend and fellow activist Emile Nazeer. “He, like other activists, received threatening text messages for weeks before he was killed.”
“Almost everyone in Nagaa Hassan loved my uncle. He spoke a lot about politics and people listened to what he had to say,” said el-Ameer, Naseem’s nephew. “He paid the price.”
Shenouda el-Ameer, a close relative, said local Islamists took advantage of the Muslim’s murder to blame it on Christians and target Naseem for his political activity.
Luxor’s security chief Khaled Mamdouh said 17 villagers, including eight Christians, were being questioned about the murder and the violence that followed. They said some of them were referred to prosecutors to be charged. Security forces, meanwhile, were deployed in the village, whose estimated 7,000 residents are about 20 percent Christian.
Father Vassilios said he did not know of incidents of sectarian violence in Nagaa Hassan, suggesting that the increased anti-Christian rhetoric by hard-liners and the polarization during Morsi’s rule had an effect.
“Relations between Muslims and Christians were so good I always thought it was special,” he told the AP. “Emile (Naseem) was a political revolutionary who served his community as best as he could.”
In the week after Morsi’s ouster, extremists carried out attacks on Christians in at least six of the country’s 27 provinces. The shooting of the priest in Sinai was the only other fatality.
In one of the most serious incidents, a mob of Morsi supporters attacked Christian homes and shops in Dalaga, a village in southern Minya province where Christians make up about 35 percent of the population, more than three times the national average. During its rampage, the crowd shouted, “There is no god but Allah and the Christians are God’s enemies,” according to police and villager Bushrah Iskharon, who recounted the events in a telephone interview with the AP.
Churches across much of the country have cancelled evening Mass and social activities as a precaution against attacks.
But activists vow they will continue with their political activities.
“My parents always mention immigration as a solution. I don’t,” said Marina Zakaria, a 21-year-old in Cairo, who began participating in street politics after Mubarak’s ouster
“Christians are mostly isolated in their churches because they are afraid from people who are not like them. With that attitude, we deepened the discrimination we face and ended up without a place in political life,” she said.
Christian activist Nirvana Mamdouh, 22, said that for far too long Christians remained silent in the face of injustices and it was time for them to speak up for their rights.
“We cannot have our freedom without blood. It is the price, what can we do?”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press