---- — MATAI, Egypt (AP) — Ezzat Kromer’s resistance to his kidnappers did not last long. One of the masked gunmen fired a round between his feet as he sat behind the wheel of his car and said with chilling calm, “The next one will go into your heart.”
The Christian gynecologist says he was bundled into his abductors’ vehicle, forced to lie under their feet in the back seat for a 45-minute ride, then dumped in a small cold room while his kidnappers contacted his family over a ransom.
For the next 27 hours, he endured beatings, insults and threats to his life, while blindfolded, a bandage sealing his mouth and cotton balls in his ears.
Kromer’s case is part of a dramatic rise of kidnappings targeting Christians, including children, in Egypt’s southern province of Minya, home to the country’s largest concentration of Christians but also a heartland for Islamist hard-liners.
The kidnappings are mostly blamed on criminal gangs, which operate more freely amid Egypt’s collapse in security since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Crime has risen in general across Egypt, hitting Muslims as well. But the wave of kidnappings in Minya has specifically targeted Christians, and victims, church leaders and rights activists ultimately blame the atmosphere created by the rising power of hard-line Islamists.
They contend criminals are influenced by the rhetoric of radical clerics depicting Egypt’s Christian minority as second-class citizens and see Christians as fair game, with authorities less likely to investigate crimes against the community.
Over the past two years, there have been more than 150 reported kidnappings in the province — all of them targeting Christians, according to a top official at the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police.
Of those, 37 have been in the last several months alone, the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Kromer, a father of three, was snatched on Jan. 29 as he drove home from his practice in the village of Nazlet el-Amoden. By the next day, his family paid 270,000 Egyptian pounds — nearly $40,000 — to a middleman and he was released.
He says he was left with the feeling that, as a Christian, the country is no longer for him. He has abandoned his profitable practice in Nazlet el-Amoden and is making preparations to move to Australia. “My wife would not even discuss leaving Egypt. Now she is on board,” he said.
Essam Khairy, a spokesman for the hard-line Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya in Minya, said “there is not a single case of Christian kidnapping that has a sectarian motive or linked to the Islamist groups.”
He blamed the “security chaos” in Egypt and said the way to stop kidnappings is to create popular committees — vigilante groups that the Gamaa Islamiya has been promoting since a spate of strikes in the police last month.
Egypt’s Christians, followers of one of the world’s most ancient churches, make up about 10 percent of the country’s estimated 90 million people. They have long complained of discrimination that keeps them out of some top jobs and of inadequate protection by authorities.
But their fears have dramatically escalated with the political rise of Islamists. Election victories vaulted Islamist political parties to domination of parliament, and President Mohammed Morsi is a veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamists in Minya and elsewhere in Egypt insist they do not discriminate against Christians.
Morsi has repeatedly asserted the equality of Muslims and Christians. Last month, a hard-line cleric was referred to trial for insulting religion for anti-Christian comments.
The governor of Minya, Mustafa Kamel Issa, a Brotherhood member, has met several times with Christian leaders in the province and has spoken of encouraging “a consciousness of tolerance” among Christians and Muslims.
Still, ultraconservative Muslim clerics have become more overt in anti-Christian rhetoric in sermons and on religious TV stations.
In Minya, Christians make up an estimated 35 percent of the population of around 4 million, the highest percentage of any province in Egypt. In the 1990s, it and other parts of the south were the heartland of the insurgency of Islamic militants who attacked police and Christians in a campaign to create an Islamic state that was crushed by Mubarak’s security forces. Now, those groups have forsworn violence and have political parties, and they wield a powerful influence.
Beyond kidnappings, Christians here say they are targeted by other criminals, including thugs who squat on Christian-owned land and refuse to leave until paid or gangs who run protection rackets targeting the community’s businesses.
Father Estephanos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Samalout, a town that has seen multiple kidnappings, says the state has indirectly encouraged crime against Christians by not prosecuting Muslims blamed for attacks on churches and Christian-owned homes and business around the country.
“The state has made Christian blood cheap,” he told the AP at his office.