Two days before the bus attack in Minya that killed 29 Copts travelling to a monastery on Ascension Day (26 May), the US embassy in Cairo warned of a possible terrorist attack. Now Egypt’s Copts are querying the absence of increased security measures and wondering why the emergency response was so slow.
“How can it be that our security forces, after the warning from the US embassy, did nothing to intervene?” asks Father Bernaba Fawzy, priest of St George’s Church in the village of Nazlet Hanna, 180km south of Cairo. “This is very shameful. There must be protection for every human being in the land of Egypt, not just the Copts.”
Fr Fawzy’s church lost seven of its members in the attack, while eight others were injured. The Copts have buried their dead, but they say they feel neglected by the Egyptian government.
“I want to know how this can happen while a State of Emergency is imposed?” asked local resident Girgis Nady, adding that the State of Emergency had “achieved nothing”.
“There is just one reason for what happened,” he said. “The failure of government officials.”
A family trip
Samia Adly, 56, from Nazlat Hanna, survived the attack but lost her husband, her two sons and two grandchildren during what began as a fun day out with the family.
The people from her village were travelling with a larger group to visit St. Samuel Monastery in nearby Minya when their bus was ambushed by eight to ten masked men.
“It was a family trip and we were very happy, laughing and joking in the bus,” Adly recalls. “While driving in the desert we heard an explosion and the bus stopped. Because we had engine problems earlier, I thought that it was something similar, until I looked out of the window and saw a number of masked men, armed and dressed in military uniform, coming out of four beige Jeeps. They fired guns to stop the bus.
“My son Sameh got out to find out what was happening, but when the terrorists saw him they shot him in the head, instantly killing him. One of our relatives immediately closed the door of the bus and stood behind it to prevent anyone entering. When the attackers could not get in, they opened fire on the windows and came in that way instead.
“Once they were in the bus, they asked us to recite the Islamic shahada [statement of faith] but we refused to do that and said to them that we are Christians and will die as Christians. Then they shot the men in the head and the neck.”
Her husband died in her arms.
“…After he knew that our two sons had already gone to heaven,” she added.
Her grandson was also killed.
“After we gave them our money and jewellery, they shot randomly at us, injuring my two daughters in their legs and killing my five-year-old granddaughter,” Adly continued. “I was injured in my legs. I hoped they would kill me too, so I could be with the others in heaven. We don’t fear death. We don’t have a place in this world; our place is heaven. We know our way very well. Our God is a strong God and He is the God of love who has taught us to love and not to hate anyone. I forgive those who killed my family and pray for them, asking God to open their eyes and guide them in his way.”
Police ‘very late’
According to Father Fawzy the police’s response immediately after the incident was wholly inadequate.
“The police and ambulances arrived at the scene very late,” he said. “After the terrorists fled, the victims, including the injured, stayed in the bus for more than 45 minutes. One of the survivors, the wife of one of the men who died in the attack, called the police asking for help. The officer told her on the phone that it was a false report and asked her to give him her ID card number. Then he hung up.”
Miled Salama, a young lawyer who lost close relatives in the attack, confirms the late arrival of the emergency services. He arrived at the place of the incident well before the police after his family had informed him that they had been shot: “I lost my voice while shouting on the phone for the police to come to the scene of the shooting”, he says with his voice still hoarse.
Father Fawzy adds that the incident was particularly “painful for all Copts” because it came after a string of deadly attacks on Copts this year, including the twin suicide bomb attacks on churches celebrating Palm Sunday, which claimed 49 lives.
That followed Islamic State’s claim in February that it wanted to “wipe out” Egypt’s Copts and “liberate Cairo”.
Fr Fawzy explains that Copts now feel like targets who are always in danger of being killed.
The priest also complained about ongoing hate speech, saying fatwas in the media have called for the shedding of Copts’ blood, “without any response from state officials”.
He called for a renewal of religious discourse, saying “there are those who consider Christians as infidels and second-class citizens, and they do not like [our] friendship”.
Girgis Nady added: “We have created terrorism with our thoughts and our hatred towards one another. Terrorism is only an illusion that we have created to cover for other realities. We only have intellectual extremism and hatred and this is the reason for what is happening in Egypt.”
‘Leave them alive to tell people what we did’
Deir El-Garnous village near Maghagha, the most northern city in the Minya Governorate, is also grieving over a loss of lives. The pick-up truck that had joined the bus on the road to the monastery, and was also attacked, came from the village.
Fr. Ishaq Samir Aziz, a priest at the village’s Saint Mary’s Church, told World Watch Monitor: “Ayed Habib Twadros, 45, had decided that morning to take seven workers to the monastery of St Samuel, where they were working on making the churches’ bells. He also took with him his two sons Marco, 15, and Mina, 10. On their way the terrorists held the car at gunpoint and killed the workers but not the boys.”
Marco recalls how the attackers were shooting the men in the head, while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest).
“After killing my father and all the workers, one of the terrorists wanted to kill us but another one of them said to him: ‘Leave them alive to tell people what we did’,” he says.
Ten-year-old Mina was recently interviewed by Reuters, speaking about the moment he saw his father killed. He is now reportedly receiving therapy at a local church.
Stained with blood
For Sohair Saad the tragedy is almost unbearable. After the death of her son, Reda, and daughter-in-law, Heba, she is now taking care of their five orphaned children.
Reda, 35, and Heba, 30, had taken their two youngest children, Ilaria, 4, and Hedra, 1, to visit the monastery with some of their relatives from Nazlet Hanna, while the other three children stayed with their grandmother.
Saad remembers the phone call she received from her son before they left.
“He said to me, ‘Take great care of the [three] children and you will be missed, my mother’. He repeated this many times – ‘take care of my children’. I said to him, ‘Why are you afraid? Don’t worry’. It was almost like he had a feeling that he would pass away.”
After Saad learned of the attack and the deaths of both Reda and Heba, she searched frantically for the two youngest children.
She finally found them, in a hospital.
“Hedra was there, alive but with his clothes stained with blood,” she recalls. “Ilaria then told us that when the terrorists started to fire their guns in the bus, her parents hid her and her brother under their seats and placed the bags over them. This is how they survived while their parents were killed.”
‘Terrorists want to change Egypt’s identity’
“Copts in Egypt are targeted by terrorists because of their support for the revolution,” explained Fr. Bernaba Eshaq, priest at Saint Mary’s Church in Maghagha. “Terrorists aim to strike the Egyptian state and political leadership to change Egypt’s identity from a moderate face to a radical and violent face.”
The 2013 revolution was a turning point for the Coptic Church in Egypt, but not in the way they had hoped. Fearing the increasing Islamist influence of former President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, the Church supported the mass protest that ultimately gave power to then-Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. They had great expectations that under Sisi’s rule Egypt would turn into a secular state with little interference from political Islam.
But it was not to be. Under President Sisi’s rule, repression has been “consolidated“, according to Human Rights Watch, and Copts have found out that they are not immune. Sisi’s government has also failed to control the extremist forces that threaten the country’s stability, while sectarianism divides the nation.
Hence, four years after the revolution, the Copts are now asking: “Where is our government?” and, even more, “Where is our president?”
“This incident isn’t the first of its kind – we have seen many such incidents involving killing, torture and bombing,” says Hany Farag, a Christian from Maghagha. “What I want to know is where the government is when it comes to protecting the Copts? And where is the president when it comes to protecting his people? I feel that Egypt is no longer a secure and safe country. Before this attack happened, Egypt was warned by the US Embassy that an act of terrorism might take place, but the government took no protection measures because the blood of the Egyptian is cheap.”