It has come to the point where the mere suspicion that a village house under construction might be used as a place of worship for Christians would bring on a vicious attack against the village Copts. This took place on Friday 17 June in the village of al-Beida in Amriya, also known as Amreya, south of Alexandria, where the Muslim villagers suspected a Copt-owned house would be turned into a church so waged an attack against the Coptic villagers. Two Copts were injured, a number of Coptic homes were plundered and damaged, and two Coptic families were forced out of their homes and rendered homeless.
As though this were not enough, there appears to be no justice on the horizon. Despite the fact that the Muslim villagers were the offenders—they attacked the Copts but were in no way attacked nor did they incur any damages—they were set free. On the other hand, three of the Copts are wanted by the police for ‘rioting’, a charge which the Copts believe is being used to coerce them into a traditional out-of-court ‘conciliation’ with the offenders, in which the Copts would have to accept whatever harsh conditions are imposed on them and, worse, relinquish all their legal rights. “We have been cornered into either conciliating or getting arrested and facing charges,” they say.
“We’ll bring down the church”
Following Friday noon prayers on 17 June, a Muslim mob gathered in al-Beida and, shouting Islamic slogans and cheering against the Copts, headed to a house under construction owned by the Copt Maurice Aziz who goes by the name Naeem Aziz. On the way they threw stones at the Copts’ houses in the village. Once at the site of Aziz’s house, they worked to destroy the building and the construction material that was being used to erect the house. They assaulted and injured Naeem and his brother Moussa, and terrorised their women and children who were at home in the house adjacent to the one under construction that was being attacked. “I was building this house for my family,” Naeem said. “The mob attacked on rumours that it would be turned into a church.”
The police arrived at the scene, but the mobbing continued. Naeem’s and Moussa’s families were safely evicted from their homes. The two families occupy the ground floor of a Church-owned community centre which lies adjacent to the house under construction owned by Naeem. But the police did nothing to protect the houses; the mob broke into the Aziz homes and plundered and damaged them. They also attacked the community centre, assaulted the Coptic men who attempted to defend it, damaged the priest’s car which was parked in front of the building, and burned a motorcycle.
The mobbing continued to shouts of: “By no means shall there be a church here!”, “By all means we’ll bring the church down!”, and “Islamic, Islamic! Egypt will remain Islamic!”
The police caught seven Muslims and six Copts, among them Naeem and Moussa Aziz, but released the Muslims before sunset—it is currently Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting from dawn to sunset. The Copts were charged with holding prayers without permission, and building without permit. At dawn the following day, they were released on bail. According to Ramy Qashwa of the Coptic Maspero Youth Union, the victimised Copts were treated as offenders. He says that the entire village, some 1500 houses, has been built unofficially, according to no plan or permit, so how can the Church-owned community centre alone in the whole village require or even obtain a licence?
The Aziz brothers and their families were banned from going into their homes.
Father Karass, pastor of the Holy Virgin and the Archangel Michael in al-Nahda, the town to which the village of al-Beida is administratively affiliated, told Watani that the centre was founded in 2009 after the Church bought the building from Naeem Aziz. It is composed of a ground floor and two upper floors and includes a chapel in which the locals worship. According to Fr Karass, the centre serves the needs of 85 [extended] families. When its ownership moved into the hands of the Church, he said, it was agreed that the Azizes would temporarily live on the ground floor till they built a house for themselves on a plot of land they owned adjacent to the community centre.
What al-Beida Copts now fear most, however, is that they would be coerced by the local security authorities into ‘reconciling’ with those who attacked them. ‘Conciliation’ is a traditional out-of-court settlement between disputing parties, worked by local elders with the aim of achieving immediate social peace. The precondition, however, is that none of the parties seek legal rights. In case of Copts, traditional reconciliation has been notorious for coercing, even threatening them, into succumbing to settlement agreements that are outright oppressive and unjust. Having been forced to give up their legal rights, they have no legitimate way of righting the situation.
Al-Beida Copts are voicing fears that they are being placed in the position where they would be pressured into conciliation. Naeem Aziz told Watani that the police have furnished Amriya prosecution with a report that accuses the Muslim offenders and the Coptic victims of ‘rioting that resulted in damages to property, the priest’s car, and a motorcycle’. “We Copts have been attacked, our homes have been plundered and burned, the community centre we used for worship and social services has been closed, two families have been evicted of their homes and left homeless, and two men injured. Yet three of us: Hervy Fawzy, my brother and I, are now wanted by the police for ‘rioting’,” Mr Aziz said. “Instead of protecting us, the police have worked to put offender and victim on the same footing. They are sending us a very clear message that the only way to escape being detained and prosecuted is to give up our legal rights and reconcile with those who attacked us. All this while the offenders run free. And they call this justice? What justice?”
Finding the facts
The National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) dispatched a fact-finding commission to al-Beida. NCHR member George Ishaq also met a number of al-Beida Copts who presented their case to him; Naeem Aziz cited the names of the police officers who he saw as collaborators in the injustice against the Copts. Mr Fawzy related the history of the community centre which the Copts have also used to hold prayers since 2009, and even before since the 1980s before the Church purchased it. Mr Ishaq and the members of the fact-finding commission revealed their deep concern at the deplorable events in al-Beida, and especially at the discriminatory behaviour practised by the security authorities in Amriya. The fact-finding report strongly denounced the manner in which the police handled the attack against the Copts and, pointing out that Amriya was a bastion of Salafi thought and practices, stressed that the State should enforce the rule of law and should not leave extremist Muslims to apply their own version of law. The NCHR referred the report to the presidency of the republic.
Rule of law
The Amriya crime prompted MP Muhammad Abu-Hamed to demand of Ali Abdel-Aal, Speaker of the House of Representatives, to question the Prime Minister and the ministers of interior and justice on the matter. He said that, according to Article 134 of the Constitution, the incident qualifies as a terrorist crime.
Coptic MPs have been vocal in their demand for justice for Amriya Copts, but the few [fundamentalist Islamic] Salafi MPs accused them of exploiting the problem to stoke sectarianism.
Sunday 26 June saw Speaker Abdel-Aal meet a Coptic delegation from al-Beida to place before him their plight and fears of being coerced into an unjust, illegal conciliation. Among those participating in the meeting were MP Abu-Hamed and the Coptic MPs Nadia Henry, Suzy Nashed, Emad Gad, Eliya Tharwat Bassili, and Reda Nassif. Speaker Abdel-Aal promised to contact the executive authorities concerned to demand that the law be applied and the evicted Copts allowed back into their homes.
The Coptic MPs met Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar on Tuesday 28 June. The MPs stressed that the discriminatory practices applied by the police in Amriya against al-Beida Copts violated the Constitution and the law, and that the falsification and manipulation of facts to pressure Copts into conciliation were unacceptable. It is the role of the police to implement the law, they said, not to go around it by sponsoring out-of-court settlements that have nothing to do with the rule of law.
Mr Abdel Ghaffar responded by stressing that it was unacceptable that any Egyptian be it Copt or Muslim, would be evicted from his home. “The only way to resolve the Amriya crisis,” he said, “is to apply the law.” Until Watani went to press, however, the Aziz families had not been allowed back into their homes. Mr Aziz said the local security officials told them it was not safe to go back home unless they ‘reconcile’ with the offenders first.
MP Nassif said that Amriya, a region notorious as a Salafi stronghold, should be brought under the rule of law. The customary practice of pressuring Copts into giving up their rights in favour of Muslim offenders should come to an end, he insisted.
For her part, MP Henry said she would file a complaint with the Prosecutor-General regarding police discrimination against the Copts of al-Beida to the point of turning them from victim to offender even though they were the ones who came under attack and who incurred all the damages. She said it was a disgrace that they were accused of a charge non-existent in Egyptian law: that of holding prayers without official permission.
30 June 2016