'Hardest days we've ever witnessed' in Egypt
"Those are the hardest days we've ever witnessed," the leader, who was not identified for security purposes, told Open Doors, an organization serving the persecuted church.
"The peaceful Egypt is now soaked into violence, hatred and desire [for] revenge," the leader said.
Since the Egyptian military removed President Mohammed Morsi from power following an outcry against his rule by many Egyptians, enraged supporters of the former president and the Muslim Brotherhood are locked in a showdown with the military. Amid the furor, Christians are paying a heavy price.
"The level of violence against Coptic Christians, their property and businesses is unprecedented in modern Egypt, both in its scope and the number of churches and structures attacked," Robert George, chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said in a news release.
Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian scholar, told the Associated Press the Muslim Brotherhood is blaming Christians for Morsi's ouster so it can peg the interim military-supported government as anti-Islamic. He said Islamists have attacked more than 50 churches, setting many on fire and destroying at least 20.
Tadros also told the AP that the Coptic pope, Tawadrous II, has gone into hiding, many churches have cancelled Sunday services and Christians are fearing for their lives. He called Aug. 14 the worst day of violence against the Coptic Church since the 14th century.
MidEast Christian News (MCN), an independent news service, reported on several of the attacks. In one instance, Islamists stormed the St. George Diocese in Sohag, setting fire to the church, looting its contents and assaulting priests inside. Some Islamists even hijacked a fire truck to prevent it from extinguishing the fire.
Father Selwanes Lofti, priest of St. Mary and St. Abraam Church, told MCN how Islamists burned several other church buildings.
"They stormed the monastery, setting areas on fire as they went, including the historical St. Mary Church, St. George Church and St. Antony Church," Lofti said.
Writing for National Review, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said rioters are targeting not only churches and other religious buildings but also the private property of Christians.
"In some cases, Egypt's security forces have protected the Christians from enflamed Islamist mobs; in many others they are failing to stop the mayhem," Shea wrote.
Wael Ibrahim, who managed the Assuit branch of the Egyptian Bible Society, told Morning Star News that Morsi supporters circled around the bookstore in the morning, threatening to attack any Christian who came near. They later burned down the building, destroying all literature and merchandise.
"They didn't just attack the store, they attacked the café and every store on the street that had any connection with Christians -- they destroyed so many stores," he told Morning Star. "All the books were burned. There is nothing left."
Shea described the Obama administration as being unable or unwilling to stop the attacks on Christians after U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf "responded simply that [the State Department] is 'concerned'" about the violence and did not outline a specific policy to help Christians."
"This can only mean [the administration] is either unwilling to use or has lost all leverage with Egypt's military, which Secretary [of State John] Kerry had so generously continued funding," Shea wrote.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke out on Twitter, noting the attacks on Coptic Christian buildings and saying U.S. aid "should be conditioned on #Egypt govt protecting #Christians."
In the meantime, Coptic Pope Tawadrous II said the attacks have been expected and that Copts consider their church buildings "a sacrifice to be made for our beloved Egypt," according to SAT-7, a Christian satellite station operating in the Middle East and North Africa.
Terence Ascott, CEO and Founder of SAT-7, wrote in a commentary on the agency's website that he found it "important and encouraging" that some Muslims came to protect the churches from attack.
"[M]any Christians then sent messages to their fellow Muslim citizens saying, 'Buildings can be rebuilt again, but you are priceless, so stay safe, and don't worry about the churches,'" Ascott wrote.
Baptist Press reported on Friday that the Beni Mazar Baptist Church in Minya, a city south of Cairo, was attacked and burned. Nobody was reported killed or injured. Mounir Sobhy Yacoub Malaty, the church's pastor, posted a video showing the ransacked and burning building.
The Egyptian Christian leader who spoke with Open Doors reiterated that the greatest loss is not the buildings destroyed, but the lives taken in the violence. He told Open Doors that irate Muslim Brotherhood members continue to threaten violence and destruction.
"My heart and the hearts of millions of Christian and Muslim Egyptians are bleeding," the leader said, "as we see Egypt turning into a strange country we've never known before."
John Evans is a writer in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).