Egypt has been one of the worst places for Christian persecution in recent months. A series of attacks targeting Christians and forced closure of churches have caused Egypt’s Christian population to call on authorities for help.
The Minya Coptic Orthodox Diocese said authorities sealed off two churches in the southern province, citing harassment and attacks by extremists. A third was closed because of fear of attacks. The statement was issued late Saturday.
It said clashes broke out Friday when ultraconservative Muslims tried to attack one of the churches, adding that a Coptic woman was wounded. Later that day, the mob attacked Christian homes, the statement said.
“We have kept quiet for two weeks ... but the situation has worsened. It seems as if prayer is a crime the Copts should be punished for,” the statement said, referring to the repeated closure of the churches.
The diocese urged authorities to end discrimination against Christians and “not to succumb to the fundamentalists.”
Minya Governor Essam Badawi denied the churches were closed for security reasons, saying they were “unlicensed houses” that lacked the documentation needed to “perform religious rites.”
However, he confirmed there were two attacks on the houses of worship and that 15 people were arrested. He said police are searching for 11 other suspects.
He said 21 churches in Minya are still open for services.
According to the International Christian Concern, a separate clash broke out on October 27, when a Muslim mob formed in the village of Exbat, following noontime prayer services and attacked St. George’s Church and other buildings owned by Christians. Security officials responded, thereby, closing the church.
“Following the Friday prayer, many Muslims gathered into a mob and began to attack us,” Sobhi, a Christian resident in Ezbat Zakaria, said in a statement to ICC, which was provided to Fox News. “They threw stones at our homes resulting in breaking the doors and windows of some houses, injuring a Coptic woman ... they set three stables owned by Copts on fire. They then headed to the church (the building services) and tried to attack it, but the security guards who were assigned confronted them and prevented them from approaching the church.”
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up around 10 percent of the population, long have been a target of Islamic extremists. Attacks on churches by Muslim mobs increased since the 2013 military coup that ousted an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Christians overwhelmingly supported the army chief-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and extremists have used such support as a pretext to increase attacks against them.
The recent closures of the churches underscore the recent problems the Coptic Christian community has faced. Historically, most attacks on the Coptic community occurred in northern parts of the country, including the Sinai Peninsula.
“Once again, Christians in Egypt are suffering for no other reason than their faith. As this event illustrates, Egypt’s Christians are not safe whether they are at home or at church,” Claire Evans, regional manager for ICC said in a statement provided to Fox News. “Closing the church does nothing to protect Christians. In fact, the mob wanted to close the church and deny the Christians the ability to exercise their right to religious practice.”
Christians in northern Sinai have been fleeing in droves in recent years because of the militant threats, and the community — that before 2011 numbered up to 5,000 — now has dwindled to less than 1,000, according to The Associated Press. There are no official statistics on the number of Christians in cities or across the country.
The displacement underscores what many human rights activists have said about the failure of the Egyptian government in providing the minimum level of security to the Christians in this volatile region of northern Sinai, where the military has been battling for years against militants.
Also, local authorities often have refused to permit the construction of churches, fearing blowback from ultraconservative Muslims. That has led Christians to set up unauthorized houses of worship, which are sometimes attacked by Muslim mobs.
Last August, parliament passed a law that for the first time spelled out rules on building churches, a step many Christians had hoped would speed construction. But critics fear that only the restrictions will be implemented.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.