ASSIUT, Egypt – It was nighttime and 10,000 Islamists were marching down the most heavily Christian street in this ancient Egyptian city, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.” A half-dozen kids were spray-painting “Boycott the Christians” on walls, supervised by an adult.
While Islamists are on the defensive in Cairo following the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, in Assiut and elsewhere in Egypt’s deep south they are waging a stepped-up hate campaign, claiming the country’s Christian minority somehow engineered Morsi’s downfall.
“Tawadros is a dog,” reads a spray-painted insult, referring to Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the nation’s Coptic Christian church. Christian homes, stores and places of worship have been marked with large painted crosses.
The hostility led a coalition of 16 Egyptian rights groups to warn Aug. 7 of a wave of violence to come and to demand that the post-coup authorities protect the Christians who are 10 percent of the population, and suffer chronic discrimination.
Assiut, a Nile River city of 1 million people 250 miles south of Cairo, dates back to the pharaohs. The New Testament says Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus passed through as they fled the infanticidal King Herod.
Today, its Christian residents’ fears are compounded by the failure of authorities to curb the graffiti-spraying and the Islamists’ demonstrations, which have gone on almost nightly since the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi.
“(The Islamists) will not stop as long as they are left to do as they please without fear of accountability,” said Hossam Nabil, 38, who owns a jewelry store that demonstrations have marched past. “They are many, and one day, they will trash our stores.”
Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed.
“They run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us or scream Morsi’s name in our faces,” he said, referring to the marchers.
A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. The two froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.
Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.
Assiut’s Islamists are strong because local authority is weak and religion is powerful in a region where poverty is widespread and envy of the relatively high number of well-to-do Christians runs high.
As for the graffiti, authorities have given up on washing it away because it quickly reappears and municipal cleaners might be roughed up if Islamists caught them, Gamal Adam, the acting provincial governor, said.
For the 40 percent of Assiut people who are Christian, life radically has changed. They find their apartment blocks disfigured by painted crosses with a red X painted over them. They stay at home at night. Churches have cancelled afternoon activities. Some of the wealthy have left town.
At least seven Christians have been killed nationwide since the coup, one of them in Assiut. Scores have been injured.
(Following the Egyptian government’s attack Wednesday on pro-Morsi encampments in Cairo, at least seven Coptic churches nationwide were burned, The New York Times reported.)
“We had never experienced the kind of persecution we suffer now. We are insulted every day,” said Nevine Kamal, 40, a Christian pharmacist and mother of two teenagers. “We are angry and frustrated but we are not leaving Assiut.
“Sadly, my children are angry with Egypt and want to leave and they don’t believe us when I and my husband tell them that things will get better soon. But, personally, I have faith that all this will yield something good for us and the country. We thought the Muslim Brotherhood will rule for 80 years, and they are out after just one year. Who would have believed this?”