Security measures on the road leading to the St. Samuel Monastery in Minya where seven Coptic Christians were killed in a militant attack in early November were once again a source of tension on Sunday, as nearly a dozen monks protested restrictive decisions that have halted all traffic on the road.
Access to the unpaved road, located at a point 22 km along the Western Desert Road without cell network coverage, has been intermittently closed since the attack, prompting the monks to stage Sunday’s demonstration.
While security officials have told monks that that this move has been made for “security purposes,” the closure leaves them without access to supplies and donations from churchgoers, and does not address the broader security concerns monks have raised in the past.
After several hours protesting, security officials arranged a meeting with the monks to try to resolve the issue. In a meeting with Minya Security Director Major General Magdy Amer, an agreement was brokered that would allow vehicles transporting workers, supplies and the relatives of monks to travel along the road, says monk Daoud al-Samouili, who is responsible for securing the monastery’s gate.
Churchgoers, however, will continue to be barred from visiting the monastery.
Monks have long called for increased security and state support in response to these threats.
According to a statement issued on November 6, the Maghagha and Adwa Archdiocese have made several demands for improved security measures over the last year, including a permanent security presence at the entrance to the monastery road, a police patrol to secure trips to and from the monastery, paving and lighting the road, installing surveillance cameras and reinforcing mobile coverage to facilitate communication in the area. None of those demands appear to have been met.
After the May 2017 attack, visits to the monastery were halted and vehicles were barred from entering the road leading to it. After a while, visits were once again permitted, but only on Fridays.
That prohibition, as is the case with the most recent one, also included vehicles that carry supplies for the monastery. This led to an appeal by monks to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in May 2018, who objected to monastery workers being prevented from entering and exiting, the lack of security, as well as the interruption of paving the road leading to the monastery.
Conflicting reports have also emerged about whether the victims of the attack put themselves at risk by driving along an unguarded side road.
The statement released by the Maghagha and Adwa Archdiocese on November 6 says that the buses that were targeted in the attack had reached St. Samuel the Confessor “though the main gate, by the desert road, and did not take an alternative route, as claimed by some.” This was a response to media claims that the victims had entered the monastery through a sub-route.
Yet a statement released by the State Information Services states that, “according to security instructions, the main road to the monastery is closed, due to the danger of its location in the desert, and the lack of network service in its vicinity. The victims used an alternative route to access the monastery.” At the time, Samouili told Mada Masr that there are no alternative routes available to access the monastery, and that the unpaved road is the only means of entry.
In the absence of a clear security framework, there have been two attacks on the road in recent years, the most recent of which occurred on November 2, when Islamic State militants targeted three vehicles carrying Copts returning from the monastery. Six of the seven individuals who died in the attack belonged to one family, and many other passengers suffered severe injuries, requiring hospitalization. Samouili has expressed criticism of the fact that there were no helicopters ready and available to canvass the area and locate the assailants and that it took security forces two hours to arrive after the attack took place.
In May 2017, Islamic State militants attacked a convoy of several buses on the same road leading to the monastery, killing 28 Copts and injuring more than 20 others, according to Health Ministry statements from the time.