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Coptic Christians en route to monastery targeted in a deadly assault

May 26, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Gunmen blasted an isolated bus packed with men, women and children in Egypt, killing at least 28. The victims were Coptic Christians who were making their way to a monastery along an unpaved desert road. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports that it was the latest in a series of attacks on the embattled Christian minority since late last year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Once again tonight, Coptic Christians in Egypt are under attack. This time, gunmen blasted a bus packed with men, women and children.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Hours after the attack, the bus sat on an unpaved desert road. Shattered windows and blood stains bore witness to the ferocious assault. Survivors told of being overtaken by eight to 10 gunmen in SUVs.

QUESTION (on camera): How many people were on the bus?

WOMAN (through interpreter): We were 40 people, including children, in the bus.

QUESTION (through interpreter): What did the attackers look like?

WOMAN (through interpreter): They were masked.

QUESTION (through interpreter): What were they wearing?

WOMAN (through interpreter): Like military uniforms.

MARGARET WARNER: It happened on an isolated road in Minya province, south of Cairo. The Coptic Christians were on their way to a monastery. The Health Ministry says many of the dead and wounded were children.

This was the latest in a series of attacks on Egypt’s embattled Christian minority since late last year. Those claimed more than 75 lives. And the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for those earlier incidents. In December, the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo was bombed. Then on Palm Sunday came twin suicide attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta.

After that, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi declared a three-month nationwide state of emergency.

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI, Egypt (through interpreter): I won’t say those who fell are Christian or Muslim. I will say that they’re Egyptian.

MARGARET WARNER: The pope, visiting Egypt weeks later, condemned the violence against the Copts.

POPE FRANCIS, Leader of Catholic Church (through interpreter): God, the lover of life, never ceases to love man. It is essential that we reject any absolutizing that would justify violence, for violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression.

MARGARET WARNER: Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 93 million people, and they have long been a target for Islamist radicals. In 2013, they largely supported then-General El-Sisi when he ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

In return, he pledged to protect the Christian minority. Now Christians say El-Sisi has failed to make good on his promise, as his government confronts an Islamist insurgency.

NPR reporter Jane Arraf, in Cairo, said Christians don’t complain about El-Sisi publicly.

JANE ARRAF, NPR: They don’t want to criticize him. And we know that’s the case because, after these attacks, in hospitals in Minya, where people gathered to gather their dead and comfort the wounded, there were protests, but the protests were against the attack itself. They weren’t against the government.

MARGARET WARNER: And on a day-to-day basis, Christians must be ever more watchful and circumspect about practicing their religion, fearing violence from terrorists or their own Muslim neighbors.

JANE ARRAF: In one place, Christians were attacked and their houses burned after they gathered to pray for victims of a suicide bombing on Palm Sunday. And when I asked villagers there what’s the problem you have with Christians, they said, we don’t have a problem. They just can’t build churches.

So it’s really very unsettled for them in places like that, and they’re not sure who to turn to, to be perfectly honest.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, as family members mourn the latest victims, Egyptian jets struck militant bases in Eastern Libya. And El-Sisi appealed to President Trump to take the lead in fighting terrorism.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This evening at the G7 summit in Sicily, President Trump condemned the attack in Egypt. He blamed what he called evil organizations of terror with a thuggish ideology.

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