KERDASA, Egypt — Three times a week without fail, the sound of ancient chants reverberates from the blackened walls of the Church of the Archangel Michael. Once aglow with precious icons and flickering candlelight, the Coptic church outside Cairo now stands nearly bare, looted and burned by an angry mob more than four months ago.
In this holiday season, many Copts, adherents of one of the oldest Christian sects, see Egypt’s turbulent times as a test of their faith. Although the country as a whole has been roiled by violent political upheaval, its Coptic minority feels particularly imperiled, as do many fellow Christians elsewhere in the Middle East.
In the region that gave rise to their religion, Christians are a dwindling minority. A long-standing Christian exodus has accelerated amid the war in Syria, an increase in sectarian violence in Iraq and gnawing hardship in the Palestinian territories. In some countries, the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” also strengthened the hand of Islamists, adding to Christians’ anxiety.
Copts, who make up about 10% of Egypt’s population, have long suffered discrimination and oppression, not only at the hands of fellow Egyptians, but under successive governments as well. Since Egypt’s 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, they have been buffeted by the rise — and spectacular fall — of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s largest and oldest Islamist movement.
For the most part, Copts rejoiced when Egypt’s army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi nearly six months ago. The Coptic pope, Tawadros II, appeared on national television alongside army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi when he announced that Morsi had been removed from office.
A scant six weeks later, when Egyptian security forces cracked down hard on protesting Morsi supporters, killing more than of 1,000 of them, the Copts bore the brunt of Islamists’ vengeance. Across the country, furious supporters of Morsi set fire to churches and looted and burned Coptic-owned homes and businesses. Police did little to intervene.
In Kerdasa, a ramshackle market town that lies a few miles from the Great Pyramids, the church had long coexisted with its Muslim neighbors. But on Aug. 14, a crowd of about 2,000 descended on the Archangel Michael compound, setting fires, toppling rooftop crosses, tearing out electrical wiring and daubing Islamist slogans on the church walls.
Nearly everything of value was stolen, down to the plumbing fixtures. Four people were injured, but none killed.
“We were lucky to escape with our lives,” said Reda Gaballah Girgis, the church’s caretaker for more than two decades. “We felt that anything at all could happen.”
It is a source of considerable bitterness to Copts that the interim government has done nothing to help rebuild their vandalized houses of worship. At Archangel Michael, like most of the targeted churches, the only cleanup has been done by parishioners. They have swept up broken glass, hauled out debris, covered doorways with plastic sheeting and painted over scrawled obscenities.
At this time of year, in preparation for Coptic Christmas celebrations on Jan. 7, the church compound normally would be bustling with activity, filled with traditional decorations and strung with twinkling lights. But the church’s burnished candlesticks, holy vessels and incense burners vanished in the crowd’s rampage. The ornate chandelier was smashed. Even light bulbs were looted.
As a mark of solidarity and defiance, about 200 people still attend thrice-weekly services in the church, where raw-wood planks have replaced many of the old carved pews. But on Fridays, the main day of Muslim prayers, the Copts gather early in the morning so congregants can be safely away before pro-Morsi protests erupt after noon prayers, as they do almost every week.
And although services resumed within weeks of the August attack, the Coptic community in Kerdasa must go elsewhere to mark crucial rites of passage, such as funerals or weddings.
“Who could ever begin their married life here?” said Girgis, gesturing at a reception hall whose walls still gave off the acrid smell of smoke. Birds fluttered among the sooty eaves.
Copts tend to feel somewhat safer in big cities such as the Egyptian capital, but even there they are scarcely immune. In October, a drive-by shooting in front of a large Coptic cathedral in an outlying Cairo neighborhood killed four wedding celebrants, young children among them. And this time of year brings memories of Jan. 1, 2011, when about two dozen worshipers in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria were killed and scores injured in a bombing as they left a church service.
At Sunday services this week in a church along the Nile in the capital, some congregants said they hoped for a better year ahead.
“Maybe we have reached the low point,” said Raafat Saliba, a churchgoer in his 60s who was seated on an outdoor wooden bench amid the scent of incense wafting from the church. “It’s important to have hope that things will improve.”
But a thin, sad-eyed fellow worshiper, Reda Sameeh, shook his head. His barbershop in the town of Delga, south of Cairo, was destroyed in the August attacks. He and most of his extended family fled to the capital, where they are barely eking out a living and relying on the help of relatives.
“Whenever things go wrong, we are blamed,” he said. “And no one knows when that will happen again.”