MATAI, Egypt -- 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.
"I cannot begin to tell you how horrifying that experience was," Kromer told The Associated Press in his hometown of Matai, 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Cairo. His left cheek where he was punched repeatedly is still sore, as is his index finger, which one kidnapper repeatedly bent back, threatening to break it.
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.
"There are consequences to Islamist rule," he ruefully said. "Things are bad now. What is coming will certainly be worse."
Responding to the allegations that authorities do not aggressively investigate crimes against Christians, Minya’s security chief Ahmed Suleiman said it is because victims’ families negotiate with kidnappers rather than report the abductions.
"We cannot be held responsible for kidnappings that are not reported to us," he said, blaming hardened criminals for the kidnappings.
Christians say they don’t bother to report because they have no confidence in the police.
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 rural areas like Minya, hard-liners often hold sway after decades of persecution, taking advantage of the chaos and lawlessness of the two years since Mubarak’s ouster to flex their muscles as the only real power on the ground.
The Brotherhood and its political party frequently underline their respect for Christian rights. But at times members reveal an attitude suggesting a second-class status for the community.
On Wednesday, Yasser Hamza, an official in the Brotherhood’s party, argued in a TV interview that while the campaign slogan "Islam is the solution" is permissible, the slogan "Christianity is the solution" would not be. He was addressing specific election rules, but then broadly declared, "This is an Islamic nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority ... The minority doesn’t have absolute rights, it has relative rights."
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.
Ahmed Salah Shabib, a rights activist from Minya, said criminals are convinced they will not be held accountable.
"They feel that there is a political cover for their actions. Additionally, they see the Christians as second-class citizens to whom they can do whatever they want with impunity," he said.
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, as he dealt with the latest kidnapping: a young boy, Andrew, who was snatched from his father’s arms on a Samalout street a day earlier.
"Do you have news about Andrew?" he asked the boy’s uncle on the telephone. "Did you hear his voice? Are the negotiations underway already?"
Estephanos said the kidnappers wanted a ransom equivalent to about $103,000 from the family, which has a lucrative animal feed business.
"The Islamists see Christians as a people who have no rights or even as non-citizens," he said.
The Interior Ministry official acknowledged that Christians are seen as less defended.
"Kidnapping Christians is an easy way to make money," he said. They "don’t have the tribal or clan backup that will deter kidnappers and they are happy to pay the ransom to gain the freedom of their loved ones."
Christians also say they are seeing an increase in the disappearance of Christian underage girls, who are later found out to have converted to Islam and married Muslim men. They accuse conservative clerics of encouraging conversions, which often ignite deadly fights between families that can turn into a cycle of blood feuds.
Christian farmer Ishaq Aziz’s 17-year-old daughter Nirmeen went missing on Valentine’s Day, fueling speculation that she has converted and will reappear with a Muslim husband once she turns 18.
Aziz, 47, and his family are preparing for that day. They have sold some farmland to buy firearms, and Aziz explained matter-of-factly that Nirmeen and her husband will be killed first -- "it is a question of honor" -- and then the guns will turn against the groom’s family.
"But we will happily take her back if she comes back with her faith intact," he said. "Even if she is pregnant, a cousin will marry her," he said, wiping a tear with the sleeve of his dark blue galabiya robe.