Islamist militants set St Mary’s church on fire in May, now Muslim craftsmen are restoring it
Fathi worked his brush gently over an icon of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus,
removing soot from its surface inside a church gutted in an attack by Islamist
militants this month.
"It takes a lot of careful work to do that,"
Fathi said. "We have to do a lot of tests with chemicals to try to restore
the icon to its original condition."
The 26-year-old is one of a vast group of mostly
Muslim craftsmen tasked with restoring St Mary's Church in the Cairo suburb of
Imbaba after militants set it on fire on May 7.
Egypt's military rulers have ordered its restoration
at a time when tensions between Christians, who account for about 10 percent of
Egypt's population, and Muslims are on the rise.
Attacks have triggered protests [see images here] and pose a challenge
for Egypt's new rulers, under pressure to impose security while seeking to
avoid the tough tactics against Islamists used by deposed President Hosni
The ground floor of the four-storey church was gutted
in the fire, destroying 10 out of 27 old icons beyond repair.
Wednesday, a team of mostly Muslim restorers --
working for one of Egypt's biggest construction firms known as The Arab
Contractors -- huddled in one corner, using special chemicals, paint and
brushes to rescue the remaining paintings.
"My job is to restore historic art pieces, be
they Muslim, Coptic or Jewish," Fathi said.
Malak Gerges, a 56-year-old church driver who was
inside the church at the time of the attack, recalled how bearded Islamists led
a group of young men into St Mary's, opened fire on icons and set the building
He said he and his younger brother Saleh tried to hide
in the corridor behind the altar but the militants found them.
"They dragged me out and threatened and abused
me," Gerges said.
He said he did not know what happened to Saleh, an
attendant who helped look after the church, until rescue workers found his
burned corpse inside the church. According to an investigation report, there
was a wound on Saleh's throat, he said.
Abdel-Aziz Mohammed, working on another icon, said he
was angry at the people who burned the church. "I felt this was an act of
vandalism," he said. "Islam does not distinguish between church and
mosque -- both are houses of God."
The May 7 attack caused an outcry in a country
grappling with growing crime and lawlessness after an uprising forced Mubarak
from power in February.
Egypt's ruling military council has vowed to punish
those behind sectarian violence and promised to protect Christians by
tightening security around places of worship.
Sectarian tension grew during Mubarak's three decades
in office and accelerated in the chaos that followed his overthrow. Many
Christians say the military-led government is being too soft on the Islamist
radicals who whip up inter-faith hatred.
The governorate of Giza, where Imbaba is located, has
pledged to pay for restoration of St Mary's church, expected to cost around 6
million Egyptian pounds ($1m).
For now, workers are busy plastering and painting its
walls and sweeping out the dust, pushing to finish their work as quickly as
"This work would normally require up to three
months. We are doing it in 21 days," Ibrahim Mahlab, chief executive of
The Arab Contractors, said while inspecting the work. "We want to show
that no intruder can create a rift between Muslims and Christians."