Under military protection, Christians in Egyptian town fear Islamist backlash

Islamic militants on motorbikes drive by Sameer Hanna Tanyous's home in this southern Egyptian town and make a chilling gesture — running their fingers across their throats. Others, he says, shout warnings that security forces won't be there forever to protect him and other Christians.

This week, a large contingent of troops and police rolled into Dalga, backed by helicopter gunships, breaking the hold of Islamist hard-liners who seized control of the town of 120,000 in early July in a spasm of violence after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. Their grip terrorized the town's Christians, as hard-liners torched and looted their homes, businesses and churches.

But the relief felt by the town's estimated 20,000 Christians was short-lived. They fear the troops will stay only long enough to make some arrests — and once they're gone, the backlash from militants against them will be even worse.

"We are too scared to talk even now with all this hokouma (government) in town," Tanyous, a 40-year-old door-to-door salesman, said at the house of a local Coptic Orthodox priest. "One day, all this police and army will go and we will have no one on our side."

Tanyous fled his home when a Muslim mob looted and torched it in mid-August, taken in with his wife and children by a Muslim family. Emboldened by the troops' presence, they returned this week to live in the burned-out, windowless husk. Immediately, the threats began, he said.

The predicament of Dalga's Christians reflects that of the minority community across the country, especially in the rural communities of the south, where religious conservatism is prevalent among Muslims and hard-line Islamists wield considerable influence.

Egypt's Christians have long complained of discrimination, but their situation dramatically worsened during Morsi's year in office, when Islamists became bolder in imposing their views. After the military ousted Morsi on July 3, his hard-line supporters unleashed a backlash of violence that largely targeted Christians, whom they accused of pushing for his removal. Christian homes and businesses around the country were attacked, particularly in provinces of the south, like Minya, where Dalga is located.

Security forces that retook control of Dalga on Monday have detained at least 130 militants. Troops backed by armored fighting vehicles check cars and pedestrians entering and leaving town, while policemen in pickup trucks cruise the streets.

The forces have been raiding homes searching for suspected militants and at times fire in the air or use tear gas to disperse pro-Morsi protests. The local police station is now home to a half dozen police generals and hundreds of policemen, with police in full riot gear milling around.

To Dalga's Islamists, the assault by the security forces on their town is another crime by military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whom they accuse of overturning the democratic process by removing Morsi following mass protests demanding his ouster.

Local Islamists accuse the troops of random arrests and abuses. Some hint they will start lashing back.

"They had better withdraw quickly or there will be bloodshed," said Younis el-Shareef, a 25-year-old student and part-time businessman.

Another Islamist, Ali Hassan, warned, "The town is inching closer to a massacre."

For Dalga's Christians, two months under Islamist control felt like being thrown back centuries into a rule where they were relegated to a rights-less status.

The town, 270 kilometers (160 miles) south of Cairo, saw no major sectarian violence for decades, residents said. But in recent years, its Muslims grew more conservative, and a radical Islamist presence began to grow.

After Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, became Egypt's first freely elected president in June 2012, "many of the Muslims began to behave arrogantly. They acted like every one of them was Morsi himself," said Father Abraam, a Coptic priest. Police complaints by Christians against Muslims in routine disputes were ignored by police, he said.

"Every time we filed a complaint, we were told to go and work it out with the Muslim party," he said.

After Morsi's fall, mobs of hard-liners, many believed to belong to the Brotherhood and the Gamaa Islamiya — which waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s — along with gangs of local criminals, drove out the town's police.

Nearly 40 Christian homes and stores were attacked in violence that accelerated after security forces launched a bloody crackdown on pro-Morsi protests in Cairo in mid-August. Dalga's only Catholic church was ransacked and set ablaze along with the Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam. The Anglican church was looted.

Gunmen repeatedly fended off police and troops trying to reenter Dalga. Christian families that remained paid armed Muslims for protection — something the Christians compared to "jizya," a tax on non-Muslims that is allowed under Shariah, or Islamic law, but has long been abandoned.

Some 50 Christian families fled Dalga, and none is thought to have come back.

This week, Abraam and several Christian men gathered at his house over tea, saying many of the town's Muslims supported the Christians after July 3, helping protect the churches. But, Abraam added, they could not do much when hundreds of Islamists attacked Christian properties in mid-August.

"Still, I believe the elders from their big families could have done more to stop the violence," Abraam said.

Another Coptic priest, Father Ioannis, however, said that while in some cases the stories were true, Christians were also exaggerating the accounts of help by Muslim neighbors — keeping the future in mind.

"The government and its forces are not going to be here for long and when they are gone we go back to living with Muslims, just us and them," he said.

The events sharply divide the town. Gaber Mikhail, a businessman and a church servant, said he was nearly beaten up by a crowd of Muslims Tuesday when he showed an Egyptian TV station crew around the burned monastery. He argued with the men that he had praised the town Muslims for trying to protect Christians.

Finally, a Muslim man hustled him away from the angry crowd, said Mikhail.

When the Associated Press and several local media representatives this week interviewed Christians living in a narrow alley in Dalga, a hostile crowd of Muslim men and children chanted against what they called media bias against Islamists.

As tension built up and voices became louder, the Christians became visibly frightened and spoke of the threats they still face even with troops and police in the town. With alarmed faces, Christian women and children hid behind windows to watch the argument heating up.

"We are still frightened and worried that they will come back," said Hanna Khalil, a 48-year-old mother of five.

When her house was torched in August, Khalil sent three of her children to relatives in Cairo, then moved with her two others and her husband into a Muslim-owned house in Dalga. A week ago, she moved in with relatives, bringing along Mabrouka, a cow that her husband rescued from their home before the mob burned it.

Khalil said she has little faith el-Sissi would go out of his way to help Christians.

"All we want is security," she said. "Justice is sweet and that is what I want for myself and my family."