Islamists Seize Town in Southern Egypt and Attack Christians

Dalga, Egypt - The Coptic Orthodox priest would talk only after hiding from the watchful eyes of the bearded Muslim outside, who wore a pistol bulging from under his robe.

The priest, Father Yoannis, moved behind a wall in the charred skeleton of an ancient monastery to describe how it was torched by Islamists and then looted when they took over Dalga, in southern Egypt, after the ouster of the country’s president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3.

“The fire in the monastery burned intermittently for three days,” Father Yoannis said. “The looting continued for a week. At the end, not a wire or an electric switch is left.”

The monastery’s 1,600-year-old underground chapel was stripped of ancient icons, and the ground was dug up in the belief that a treasure was buried there. “Even the remains of ancient and revered saints were disturbed and thrown around,” Father Yoannis said.

Dalga, a town of about 120,000 people, including 20,000 Christians, has been outside government control since hard-line Islamist supporters of Mr. Morsi drove out the police and occupied the police station on the day the Egyptian military removed Mr. Morsi.

The Islamists’ actions were part of a wave of attacks in the province of Minya that targeted Christians, their homes and their businesses.

Since then, the militants have imposed their grip on Dalga, twice driving off attempts by the army to send in armored personnel carriers, fending them off with gunfire.

Their hold points to the power of hard-line Islamists in southern Egypt even after Mr. Morsi’s removal — and their determination to defy the military-backed leadership that had him replaced.

With the army and the police already fighting an expanding militant insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, there are growing signs that a second insurgency could erupt in the south — particularly in the provinces of Minya and Assiut, both Islamist strongholds that are also home to Egypt’s two largest Christian communities.

The takeover of Dalga has been disastrous for Christians in the town, which is 160 miles south of Cairo on the edge of the Nile Valley, near cliffs that mark the start of the desert.

In the initial burst of violence, the town’s only Catholic church was ransacked and set ablaze, as was the Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam. The Anglican church was also looted.

Nearly 40 Christian-owned homes and stores have been attacked by Islamists, according to activists in Minya. Bandits from the nearby desert joined the looting and burning, they said. Among the homes burned was that of Father Angelos, an 80-year-old Orthodox priest who lives near the monastery. Father Yoannis’s house was spared a similar fate by his Muslim neighbors.

A Christian who fired shots from his roof to ward off a mob was dragged down and killed, the activists said. Armed men can be seen in the streets, and nearly every day Islamists hold rallies demanding Mr. Morsi’s reinstatement.

Most Christians remain indoors as much as possible, particularly during the rallies. “The Copts in Dalga live in utter humiliation,” said a local rights activist, Ezzat Ibrahim. “They live in horror and cannot lead normal lives.”