26 December 2010
Last Wednesday morning saw Pope Shenouda III meet President Hosni Mubarak for 45 minutes at the presidential headquarters in Cairo. Despite the fact that no official declaration was issued, the Pope was seen to be in an excellent mood during his weekly sermon that evening, and his legendary good humour was in full play.
Well-informed aources told Watani that the talks between the Pope and the President tackled the release of the 42 Coptic men who are still detained in the wake of the Umraniya riots which left two Copts dead, scores injured, and 157 detained. Some 115 of those detained have already been released. It is reported that His Holiness criticised the use of live ammunition against the Coptic demonstrators.
The same source said that the talks also tackled the Nag Hammadi Christmas Eve crime against the Copts last January in which six Copts—and one Muslim passerby—lost their lives in a drive-by shooting as they left church after Midnight Mass. No culprit has yet been indicted.
The fact that the bills for a unified law for building places of worship and a unified personal status law for Christians have not found their ways yet on Parliament’s agenda despite years of delay was discussed. It is said that the meeting was cordial and that the President promised to see these problems solved.
The Copts of Talbiya in Umraniya, Giza, had violently demonstrated on 24 November in the wake of a security attack against them for using a community service Church-owned building as a [non-licensed] church. License to build a church requires arduous administrative and security permits which may take years on end—if they get issued at all. The security forces opened fire against the Copts, killing two and injuring scores.
Some 157 Copts were charged with mobbing, the determination to kill policemen on duty, and possession of unlicensed white weapons for terrorist purposes. Such charges carry sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
Watani met several of the recently released detainees who talked on condition of anonymity. They all had similar stories to tell. Whether caught on the site of Talbiya church or as they walked in the streets on the pretext that they were Copts, they were harshly beaten and dragged on the ground to board a police truck. They were then taken to the Central Security Camp on the Cairo Alexandria desert road, and later moved to Tura prison. “In Tura prison,” said 34-year-old G.N said who had just driven his children to school in the early morning and was heading home, “there were many other detainees who included old men as well as several injured. But at Tura we were treated well. Then came the release order. I don’t understand why I was released any more than I know why I was caught.”
In case of 30-year-old E.Y, the security men caught him while he was at the church site, lifting some concrete, that morning. “The security men fired tear bombs at us, and we began suffocating so we ran away. The security men chased us with sticks and wooden beams, and fired at us with live ammunition. Many of us were hurt; I was hit on the head and on various parts of the body. The security men dragged us mercilessly as we fell to the ground. I can never forget the sight of one screaming man coming down the stairs with his hands above his head; he was hit by a bullet in the eye and was even then caught as he fell, bleeding profusely.
“We were questioned by the prosecution but were not allowed to have lawyers with us.”
N.D, who is 44 and is a worker told Watani that he was hit during the security attack and was dragged on the floor and caught. “I was taken to the hospital but was chained to my bed for two days after which I was moved to prison. In prison I was treated well until I was released. I do not understand why all this happened; we were only trying to have a place to pray. Is that such an unlawful crime?”
Father Mina of Mar-Mina church in Umraniya was grateful for the good treatment of the prisoners. He told Watani that the church building that had been under attack in Talbiya had sustained many damages. “We are waiting for Giza governor Sayed Abdel-Aziz to keep his promise and allow us to have our church. The columnist Fatma Naout wrote in the Cairo independent daily al-Masry al-Youm asking what harm was there in a church built by the Copts? Does building a church warrant all the obstacles placed in its path?
“Incidentally,” Fr Mina said, “a residential building just 70m in the vicinity of Talbiya church was turned into a mosque almost a week after the security attack against the church. No licence was required; the owner simply prepared the place and outfitted it for use as a mosque. The neighbourhood Muslims held prayers there with no problem whatsoever. Why shouldn’t the church be treated in the same way?”
The district of Umraniya, according to Fr Mina, is home to some 90,000 Copts. They are served by only four churches. “We need at least another six churches to serve such a congregation,” he said.