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`Might of the sword' menaces Christians

Robert Fisk in Minya, Upper Egypt, finds a conflict ignored by the Egyp tian authorities
The "wanted" posters are cheap photocopied affairs, sheets of A4 paper gummed to the railway station walls. The snapshots come from ID photos - the kind you give to the police when you want a new passport or identity card - with the wary look of any man alone in a booth: bearded with eyes staring at the camera, middle aged or very young. Minya railway station was built for tourists - its concourse and ticket office were constructed to represent the hall of a Pharaonic tomb, all leaning arches an d vultures' wings - but policemen now eye foreigners with suspicion.

"These are terrorists: call the police," it says beneath the pictures in spidery ink, the impatient handwriting of an Egyptian mukhabarat (intelligence) man. At the top left of one of the posters, a young man looks at us, a college student, perhaps, but with frightened eyes, as if he knew he would be on the run. He is just 17.

The people of Minya and Fikriya and Mallawi know what fear means. The curfew starts at 6pm. "We don't go out like we used to - we stay indoors most of the time," a Coptic woman, the owner of a chemist's shop in a neighbouring town, admits to us. And can you blame her? Officially, the el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) attacks only security men and government employees but for the Christians of upper Egypt, there is a special meaning to the Gamaat literature which tells its adherents that "the tyrants of this land will only meet their end by the might of the sword".

Take, for example, the case of Nadi Shenouda - he carried the same name as the Coptic Pope but is no relation - who lived in the village of el-Muharrak. Accused of helping the police locate members of the Gamaat, he was gunned down by armed men on 11 November, dying in hospital a few hours later. Or Sami and Osama Naquib, who were shot down in front of their home at Rastum two days later. Or Labib Atallah, the local grocer in Nawai, who refused to sell food to the Islamists and paid the price with his life, assassinated on 15 September.

Although he was armed, Mikhail Faraq was shot dead in Um Tis'a and dumped in a drainage ditch; the fact that his gun was found beside his body suggests that the Gamaat did not kill him for his weapon. Then there is the case of Bashari Marzouk, a financial manager in the state-run export office in Minya, driving a government car when he was shot dead. All were Christians.

Back in Cairo, the authorities prefer to ignore the Christian-Muslim conflict. The war in Upper Egypt is represented as government versus terrorists, police versus criminals, in much the same way as the Algerians still claim to be fighting mafia gangs rather than an Islamic uprising. Only the opposition newspapers bother to hint at extrajudicial killings, torture and death squads. When the lawyer Abdul Madani dies in prison, his wife is briefly arrested, warned not to talk to journalists, and then freed. She is silent now, like many of the reporters who would like to interview her. At least three foreign correspondents have been threatened by the Ministry of Interior. Human rights - the much-proclaimed cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East - doesn't seem worth the candle in Egypt.

President Hosni Mubarak publicly blames Iran and Sudan for the insurrection but in upper Egypt, the mukhabarat tell you, privately of course, that they suspect Saudi money is being funnelled into the Gamaat, cash from across the Red Sea, funds from a nation which has always been as envious of Egypt's role in the Arab world as it is fearful of its massive population. No Saudi chooses to forget Nasser's promiscuous involvement in the Yemeni civil war. Why should bankrupt Egypt be allowed to remain immune from the dangers of Islamic revolution? Look at the visiting card of Montasser el-Zayat, prominent lawyer for Gamaat defendants in the military courts and member of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights (EOHR). He belongs to the Islamic Lawyers' Legal Group but the second telephone number on his card is Jeddah 672-7746 (PO Box 2876, Jeddah).

Is this why, on 18 May last year, Mr Zayat was arrested, along with 37 other lawyers, while staging a Lawyers' Syndicate protest over Madani's death, held for six months on the grounds that he had been "acting as the co-ordinator between leaders of terrorist groups inside and outside of Egypt". He was never charged but held under "precautionary detention" until released in November on bail of just £95. He, too, is now silent. The EOHR - which includes people fiercely opposed to the Islamist radicals - fears that amendments in Egyptian anti-terrorist laws have criminalised political and trade union activities.

The US, normally the crusading spirit - along with Israel - of any war against Islamic terror, has been playing an odd role in Egypt. Two years ago, its diplomats in Cairo held secret talks with the Gamaat. Last year, they met members of the illegal but largely tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. But now Mr Mubarak has moved against even these over-loquacious Islamists, arresting 27 of them on 22 January. The police arrived at their homes before dawn, confiscating books and papers. Among those detained were an 86-year old engineer, the head of the medical trade union in Alexandria and Essam el-Ariana, a former member of the Egyptian parliament.

Back in Minya, the EOHR reports more disturbing events; the arrest of entire families, collective punishment, the bulldozing of houses belonging to the parents of suspected members of the Gamaat, the destruction of sugar cane crops, "executions" in the countryside by plainclothes security police. A single line in one of the EOHR's most recent reports stands out above all others. "The Egyptian government," it says, "still pays no attention to our reports."

Tomorrow, Robert Fisk investigates claims of police collective punishment in Mahras.