Police stood by as Muslims beat and killed Coptic Christians and looted their homes and stores in al-Kosheh, Egypt, last weekend, Christians in the region said.

…Security forces have been patrolling the area since Jan. 1, but more than 20 Christians have died, 10 are reported missing, and scores of homes and shops have been destroyed in three villages in Dar al-Salam municipality, Upper Egypt, news reports say.

…”That is the disturbing fact. The violence continues – more Christians were killed yesterday, despite heavy police presence in those villages,” Joseph Assad of the Center for Religious Freedom (see link #1 below) at Freedom House told Religion Today. Assad, an Egyptian, said he has been in daily contact with sources in the area, including Coptic Bishop Wissa.

…Police watched as Muslims stormed two Christian homes in al-Kosheh and killed the families, U.S. Copts, a human rights groups, said. “We know exactly what is going on from the mouths of people living there. We are speaking hourly with them,” the group’s Michael Meunier said.

…Christians in al-Kosheh fear the police because of past persecution, Assad said. More than 1,000 Christians were arrested, interrogated, and tortured by police in a 1998 murder investigation that some said was an attempt to frame Christians. “The international media has neglected to mention that many of the police dispatched to the area are the same ones who went there and tortured many Christians¬† in 1998,” Assad said.¬†

…It is the worst case of violence against Christians in Egypt in 20 years, Assad said. Egypt’s Interior Ministry confirms 20 dead, but Coptic-rights advocate Mamdouh Nakhla said the number rose to 28 when five more died of wounds and three bodies were found in a field, Reuters said. The government said 33 Christians have been injured and 33 of their stores looted, but Meunier said about 100 stores have been destroyed.

…”I was sitting in my field with eight relatives,” Morqos Rushdie al-Gindi, a Christian farmer, told Reuters. “Three Muslim neighbors came and fired on us. They killed all of my relatives. I thought I was dead. I only regained consciousness in hospital.”¬† A Christian schoolteacher said she saw 50 men throwing gasoline bombs at Christian houses between the village of al-Balabish and al-Kosheh.

…Some Christians have retaliated, Reuters said. A group stopped a school bus carrying Muslim and Christian children, ordered the Muslims off, and beat them with pipes, Ahmed Ali Eid, 13, said. About 40 people have been detained or arrested, Reuters said.

…”Extremist elements” on both sides are to blame for the violence, officials said.

…Members of Egypt’s Cabinet met to discuss how to prevent further violence. About 75% of al-Kosheh’s 23,000 residents are Christian and it is the largest of several Christian villages in the municipality of Dar al-Salam. Violence could spread to a dozen nearby villages “in a matter of hours,” Assad said.

…The Cabinet said Egypt “knows no discrimination between Muslims and Christians,” but Christians disagree. Islam is the state religion and fundamentalists are forcing a greater Islamization of society, Operation World said. Christians are denied the same education and job opportunities as Muslims, and religious police keep close watch on Christian activity, it said.

Christian churches can’t build new buildings or repair the outside of existing structures without a special decree from the president, rights groups said.

…Converts from Islam to Christianity are persecuted. Parents who become Christians can lose custody of their children and their extended families may be discriminated against, the American Coptic Association said. Christian women are targeted for “forcible reconversion” which sometimes involves rape and forced marriage, it said.

…Christians make up 10-15% of the population in the country of 64 million people. The Orthodox Coptic Church dates back to the time when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire. Tradition holds that the Apostle Mark brought Christianity to the country, which was overtaken by Arab Muslims in 641.