Copts in Egypt's Delga back to broken homes, shattered trust

Samir Hanna, an Egyptian Copt, returned to his home in the town of Delga a short while ago, but only to find it torched and looted by masked Islamist men.

"Hundreds of them attacked our homes, many of them wearing masks," said the 43-year-old farmer inside his gutted house. "My home was looted, set on fire and destroyed."

On August 14, mobs of Islamists unleashed a wave of violence in Delga -- attacking Coptic homes, centuries-old churches and terrorising Christian families.

The violence, which also killed a Coptic barber, drove a deep wedge between the town's 120,000 Muslims and Christians who had until then lived peacefully in the mainly farming community in Upper Egypt.

More than 100 Christian families fled their homes, some leaving the town after the attack.

"When we fled, it was my Muslim friend at whose house we stayed. We trust him, but we are afraid and insecure as we can't trust everybody in the town now," said Hanna, indicating that some of the attackers were local, and others from outside town.

"We fear for what could happen after the army leaves."

Troops stormed Delga, 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Cairo, on September 16 to flush out Islamists, many of them hardline supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, according to media reports.

The Islamists were enraged by a bloody army and police crackdown in Cairo on August 14 on Morsi's supporters.

Islamists accuse Coptic Christians of backing the military that toppled Morsi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood and was Egypt's first democratically elected head of state.

This perception was fuelled by the appearance of Coptic Pope Tawadros II alongside army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he announced on television Morsi's removal from office. Muslim leaders and politicians were also present.

Rights groups say that Copts, who account for six to 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, have come under attack mainly in the provinces of Minya and Assiut in central Egypt.

'It was brutal'

The US-based Human Rights Watch says that more than 40 churches have been attacked since August 14, including 11 in Minya and eight in Assiut.

Delga's Coptic priest Yuannas says it will take a long time before the wounds inflicted on the town's Christians heal.

"We always had our quarrels, but we used to end them before sunset. But what has happened now will take a long time to heal," Yuannas said as he showed AFP the destruction of the town's monastery and three churches.

"On the first day about 2,000 people attacked the monastery and the churches. They set fire to the buildings, stole many artefacts and also dug in the ground, thinking they may find some treasure.

"It was brutal," he said, pointing to a gaping hole which used to be a dome of the Blessed Virgin church, said to have been built in the fifth century.

"The violence stopped only after troops came. If you want trust to return, such things must not be repeated. The authorities must step up reconciliation efforts," Yuannas said.

Sheikh Mohammed Ali, imam of Delga's mosque, said the "attackers were thugs".

"There are no political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the town, but there are individual hardliners, Islamists and Salafists."

Several Muslim residents who spoke to AFP said they hoped the situation would improve with time.

"I helped my friend Samir. I'm a Muslim and it is my duty to help those facing injustice. This is what Islam teaches. But I know it is not easy to rebuild" lost homes, said Tawfiq Zaki, a butcher.

Delga has been slowly returning to normalcy under the watchful eye of troops mostly stationed around the local police station.

Shops are open, the market is doing a brisk trade, the streets are full of children running behind mule-carts, and farmers drive their tractors and trucks loaded with onions, a key crop in the area.

But on Sunday in Delga, one person was killed when Islamists clashed with civilian opponents and police, a health ministry official and witnesses said.

And a look at Hanna's two-storey house shows why it will take a long time before the two communities can forget what happened in August.

Smoke-blackened walls, smashed windows, a broken television and piles of debris in the five rooms of his house are proof of the fury unleashed by attackers.

"Who is going to pay for this now? How do I rebuild?" asked Hanna as his three children clawed in piles of debris inside their broken home.