CAIRO – In what could presage a broader strike against Islamists who have been attacking Coptic Christians in the Nile Valley, Egyptian security forces on Monday swept into a community in the country’s center where supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi had effectively seized control.
The Christian minority in the town of Dalga, about 190 miles south of Cairo, reported a harsh campaign of intimidation in recent weeks by militants who burned churches and shook down individuals, demanding protection money in the form of an archaic “tax” on non-Muslims. About one-sixth of the town’s 120,000 residents are Christians.
But Egyptian authorities played down Monday’s army and police offensive in Dalga and appeared reluctant to cast it as having been launched in support of beleaguered Copts. An Interior Ministry official described the operation as targeting “wanted criminals” and reported the arrests of 56 people and the seizure of several weapons caches.
By contrast, an army campaign against Islamist groups operating in the rugged Sinai Peninsula has been trumpeted by Egyptian officials. At a news conference in Cairo on Sunday featuring slickly produced videos of soldiers and tanks, the chief army spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, vowed that the Sinai campaign would continue until Islamist “terrorists” in the vast desert region were brought to heel.
Christians in Egypt have long complained that the government is indifferent to persecution they suffer. In Minya province, where Dalga is located and the Christian population makes up a greater share than nationwide, government offensives may be driven less by a desire to defend religious minorities than by a keen awareness that the area is a stronghold of Gamaa Islamiya, an ally of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamists have challenged government control in several other communities in Minya, local officials have reported.