HELWAN, Egypt — The gunmen sped past on motorcycles and in a car, firing automatic weapons and hurling gasoline bombs. Parishioners ran for cover as bullets chipped the stone and rattled the metal doors of St. George’s Church.
Adel Samir hasn’t slept since Friday’s attack. A mechanic, he now guards the church south of Cairo. The street out front has been barricaded. Other men, tattooed with the cross, wield clubs and patrol the perimeter amid yellow dust rising from cement factories along the Nile.
“The thugs sprayed bullets and threw 10 Molotov cocktails at us,” said Samir, who added that no one was killed or badly injured. “People were hit in the arms and legs. Some of the gunmen had beards. They were hired by Islamists.”
The assault on St. George’s, a Coptic Orthodox church, was one of scores of attacks on Egypt’s churches, monasteries and other institutions in the last week. Tensions between Muslims and Christians since the coup that overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi have become an incendiary subplot to the intensifying battle for the nation’s future being waged between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and the military-backed government.
“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to burn down the country,” said Nagy Shokrallah, a fidgety man thumbing through photos of church damage on his BlackBerry. “When we take our children to visit the monasteries in the south, we tell them they were burned twice in history: the first time under Roman occupation and the second time by the Muslim Brotherhood” as Morsi and its other leaders were pushed from power.
Two Christians have reportedly been killed in recent days. Churches, schools, convents and at least one Christian orphanage have been attacked, torched or robbed, many of them in the southern deserts. Vestments have been scorched, statues shattered. Police have often provided little protection; parishioners said security forces didn’t arrive at St. George’s until three hours after the gunmen had fled.
“The military and police secured nothing at all,” said Tony Sabry, a member of a Coptic youth union, who criticized Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, for instigating a purge against the Brotherhood that left Copts exposed. “Sisi has said he will restore the churches ... but he should have protected them before their sanctity was violated.”
Many Islamists blame minority Christians for opposing Morsi and backing the July 3 military takeover of the country. Christians, who make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 83 million, have lived in relative peace with Muslims for centuries. But in recent years Copts have yearned for an earthly protector as much as a spiritual one as they have felt trapped between imams and generals.
Thousands of Copts began leaving Egypt in 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood started its political ascendancy that led to its controlling parliament and winning the presidency. But the Brotherhood’s fall from power has left Christians vulnerable to hard-line Islamist elements angered by the turn of events.
“We’re afraid for our people but we have great faith that God will watch over everything,” said Michael Fayek, peeking out from black metal doors and leading guests past icons and silver incense burners at St. George’s. “The Brotherhood wants to push us in sectarianism because they have failed at politics.”
Many Christians felt protected under President Hosni Mubarak, whose police state persecuted the Brotherhood until he was ousted in a 2011 uprising. Others, however, say sectarian animosities intensified during Mubarak’s final years in power, resulting in the drive-by shootings of Christians and a church bombing that killed 23 parishioners in Alexandria.
When the army seized control of the country after Mubarak’s fall, some Copts hoped stability would follow. But in October 2011, security forces and soldiers — one driving an armored personnel carrier into crowds — killed nearly 30 Copts who were protesting over the burning of a church. Christian insecurities deepened when Morsi was elected president last year.
The men at St. George’s said they were relieved the army was back in charge, so much so that, in a bit of historical revisionism, Samir suggested that it was Brotherhood members disguised in army uniforms who killed Copts in that October incident, known as the Maspero massacre.
“No, no,” Fayek corrected. “It was the military. But the army today is not the army of two years ago. There was complicity back then between the army and the Interior Ministry [which controls police] against Copts, but that’s not true any longer. We also feel we now have a lot more international support. But not from America. Saudi Arabia has been very helpful though.”
His comments illustrate how fragmented and frightened Egypt has become. The perception in much of the country, even among Christians, is that the U.S. has been unfairly critical of the army’s crackdown, which has seen more than 900 people killed in recent days, most of them Brotherhood supporters and anti-army demonstrators slain by security forces. Many here subscribe to the military’s version that Brotherhood followers are terrorists.
That suits the interests of the Saudi monarchy, which fears that populist Islamist movements such as the Brotherhood could rise up against it one day. The Saudis pledged $5 billion in aid to Cairo after Morsi was deposed. Fayek applauded the gesture even though Saudi law would call for his beheading if he showed up there praying over a Bible. Many such strange alliances have arisen in Egypt, where these days many prefer security over civil freedoms.
Down the corniche from St. George’s, other guards, including Emad Girgis, a tattoo of the Virgin Mary shining on his forearm, hunkered behind the metal door of another church, which was also attacked Friday.
“The Brotherhood marchers, maybe 500 of them, were walking toward us chanting, ‘Peaceful, peaceful,’ ” said Girgis. “But as soon as they got near the church, some of them fired shotguns and automatic weapons. Vigilantes from our neighborhood came and fired into the air to scare them away.”
As Girgis spoke, an army personnel carrier pulled up for a few minutes and then drove away.
“I don’t feel worried,” said Girgis as a stray dog slipped through the door. “Egypt is protected.”
“I feel worried,” said another guard.
“No you don’t,” said Girgis, hushing the man.
“Don’t you see what’s going on?” said the man.
Girgis looked at him hard. The man said nothing more.
The guards at St. George’s waited in the shade. Not far from this broken street, and centuries before Islam was born, the holy family is said to have traveled along the banks of the Nile when it fled King Herod’s legions.
The heat rose. A few guards slept in the courtyard beneath paintings of saints and popes. One pointed to a shot-out windowpane, another walked along the pews toward the altar and two unlit candles. He shut the lights off and walked back to the street.
It was quiet. A plate of cookies sat on a chair next to the guards.
“The Muslims in this neighborhood brought these,” said Shokrallah, still perusing his BlackBerry. “They are good people. They came to protect the church. But the Brotherhood, they are no good. They want to turn the noise and dust of Egypt into fire.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.