VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis joined religious-liberty advocates in voicing grief at the “painful news” of more than 600 deaths and numerous attacks on Christian churches in Egypt’s latest wave of violence.
“I wish to ensure my prayers for all the victims and their families, the injured and all those who are suffering,” the Pope said before the Angelus prayer Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption. “Let us pray together for peace, dialogue and reconciliation in that dear nation and throughout the world.”
On Aug. 14, Egyptian security forces broke up the camps of protesters allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. The protesters were demanding President Mohammed Morsi’s restoration to power. Morsi was ousted by the military last month after millions of Egyptians, led by the Tamarod movement, took to the streets demanding his removal.
The ensuing clash at the camps killed more than 200 protesters and several dozen policemen.
The death toll rose, and at least 638 people were reported killed in violence across Egypt on Aug. 15, as hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members responded by setting fire to a government building near Cairo, the BBC reported.
Much of Egypt has been placed under curfew, and Christian churches have come under attack. The Brotherhood has targeted Egypt’s Christians, who supported the Egyptian Army’s decision to side with the June 30 protests and force President Morsi out of power in favor of a new government.
In Suez, a convent of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd and the adjacent school and hospital were robbed and set on fire. A Franciscan church was also set ablaze, the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria reported.
In the northeastern city of Minya, there was another attack on the Coptic Catholic church of Mar Guirgis, which had previously been attacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. There were fires at a Jesuit church, the Coptic Catholic Church of St. Mark and a convent and school of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
In the north-central city of Beni Souef on the Nile River, there was a fire at the Franciscan Convent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
In the central Egypt city of Asyut, there was a fire at the Franciscan Church of St. Therese and at a convent of Franciscan sisters.
At Cairo’s Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima, attackers threw stones and assaulted the doors of the church, but failed to enter.
More than 25 other attacks targeted Orthodox and evangelical churches, the patriarchate reported.
Pope Francis addressed the violence in his remarks after the Mass for the Assumption. He sought the intercession of the Virgin Mary.
“Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us,” he told crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Aug. 15. “Let’s all say it: Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.”
One Christian leader, speaking anonymously to the evangelical Christian group Open Doors USA, lamented in particular the death of 10-year-old Jessica Boulos, who was killed last week while returning home from her Bible study at a Cairo evangelical church.
The Christian leader said her death by “a fanatic Muslim gunman” is “unbearable” and “continues to throw its shadows of pain on her broken family and the entire Christian community of Egypt.”
“In all of this mess, the loss of church buildings is great, but not to be compared with the loss of the many souls, the pains of the wounds and the fear and anxiety that have filled the hearts of all that can yet happen in Egypt today and the days to come,” the leader said. “Buildings can eventually be rebuilt, but when lost, souls can never be restored.”
Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, wrote in an article for National Review Online that the United States has shown an alarming indifference to the plight of Christians in Egypt.
“The Copts are not part of the military assault against Muslim Brotherhood protesters in two of Cairo’s squares and were but one of many factions of Egyptian society that supported the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi,” Shea observed.
However, she charged: “The Copts have been scapegoated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists since the beginning of the July 3 military intervention.”
Days after Morsi’s ouster, Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic Conference, told the Register from Cairo that Christians shared the frustrations of most Egyptians with Morsi’s rule and wanted a new constitution to give them full rights.
“They want a civil state. They want to put Egypt back as a civilized country in the international community,” he said. “It’s their future that they want to take back.”
Shea has criticized the U.S. government for failing to take stronger action against the violent targeting of religious sites, property and houses of worship.
When U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was questioned about the attacks at a recent press conference, Shea said Harf simply said that the government is “concerned” and will “continue speaking out against this” in an effort towards “moving forward with a democratic process.”
Shea added, “Beyond the general aim of ‘moving forward with a democratic process,’ the Obama administration apparently has no policy specifically directed to help this religious minority.”
Register staff contributed to this report.