Egypt’s Copts are still reeling from a second bus attack in two years on the desert road to a monastery in Minya and asking why there was no protection for them.
It should have been a joyful day. On Friday 2 November a Coptic family had celebrated the baptisms of two little boys, four-month-old Emile and 5-month-old Noufir, which had taken place in the morning at St Samuel’s monastery. In a cheerful mood, listening to Christian songs in the bus, they started their journey back home. Then, suddenly, guns were fired from a four-wheel drive that had come alongside the bus, carrying four masked men who looked like soldiers.
The 28 family members on board all ducked for cover, including Sameh Nabil, who was driving the bus, and Ibrahim Youssef, who was sitting next to him.
“I felt responsible for my passengers, I just had to keep them safe,” Nabil told a contact of the Christian charity Open Doors International two weeks after the incident. “So I drove as fast as I could, but it didn’t stop the terrorists. They managed to break one of the windows with their shooting. Then I sat down on the floor of the bus, but I pressed the accelerator with all the strength I had, trying to escape.”
Panic broke out in the bus. “When the shooting started, all the passengers started screaming,” Youssef said. “I got off my seat and sat down on the floor of the bus to avoid the bullets, and others were doing the same. They were terrible moments. We just screamed and asked God to protect us.”
Then the attackers noticed a minibus from Minya approaching, about 300 metres behind Nabil’s bus, which diverted their attention, allowing Nabil to escape and drive the bus to safety. No-one was killed on Nabil’s bus, although some of the family members sustained serious injuries.
But on the other bus, seven members of one family, including two children, were killed.
Nabil and Youssef said they grieved with the bereaved family and that their escape was a miracle. “God protected us and rescued us from death. I was driving at an excessive speed, while sitting on the floor of the bus, and still the bus stayed steadily on the road,” Nabil said.
When they arrived at the checkpoint at the beginning of the desert road, “there were two buses waiting to go to the monastery from there, but I warned them to go back”, Nabil said.
This time police were manning the checkpoint, unlike in the early morning hours when they had passed the checkpoint, he added.
‘The same terrorists, the same place’
Right after the incident, local Christians gathered at the scene of the attack to protest and express their outrage over another bus attack in almost exactly the same place as the one in May 2017 in which 28 Copts lost their lives.
“I know all of the dead victims [of this latest attack]. They were good members of our church, honest people who had a strong relationship with God,” said Father Sirapion Effat from the Coptic church in Minya city.
“We are surprised that this could happen again. Saint Samuel’s monastery is an ancient place that receives both local Christians and tourists. Why wasn’t it secured better?” he asked.
“The state should explain how this attack could happen twice in the same manner, and in the same place,” added Father Samuel Fayes of the Coptic church in El-Kawamel, where the first bus came from. He queried why there had been no police at the checkpoint of the road leading to the monastery when the bus passed it early in the morning.
Egypt’s government vowed to improve the security around the monastery after the first attack, but that didn’t happen, said Amir Fakhry, a local human rights activist. “They promised they would build a hard surface on the 25km-long road leading to the monastery [to help drivers get away], and to add street lights … and strengthen the mobile network in this area to help prevent another attack. [All] that didn’t happen. So the incident was repeated, with the same terrorists and in the same place,” Fakhry said.
Two days after the incident Egyptian authorities reported that they had killed 19 Islamists suspected of involvement in the second bus attack.
Islamic State released a propaganda video in February last year, vowing to wipe out Egypt’s Coptic Christians and “liberate Cairo.” Meanwhile, a local IS affiliate known as Sinai Province has attempted to impose its hard-line interpretation of Islam on Egypt’s North Sinai population around El-Arish.