14 June 2009
The last day of May marked the passage of one year since the gory attack against the monks of the fourth century desert monastery of Abu-Fana south west Minya, some 280km south of Cairo. The attack was not the first waged against the monastery by the tribal desert dwellers living in the area—commonly called “Arabs”; the May attack was the 13th waged against the monastery during the period from 2005 to 2008.
Deir Abu-Fana (St Epiphanius) lies in a desolate spot amid the sand dunes of the Western Desert. A number of monks live there, while the cells of hermits are scattered in the desert around the central monastery compound which includes the ancient church and communal building. The monks farm the land around the monastery, producing crops, mushrooms, and honey to provide for the monastery and their upkeep.
The attack on the evening of 31 May 2009 involved the torching of a church at the monastery, several monk and hermit cells, a portion of the monastery grounds, and cultivated land that belonged to the monastery. The honey and the mushroom production plants were also destroyed. The gas-fired irrigation pumps were damaged, as well as a tractor. The tractor is a major means of transport for the monks among the sand dunes.
Two monks and two cadets were injured and moved to hospital. One of the attackers, Khalil Ibrahim Mohamed, 39, was killed. The police who was instantly informed—the police station is just 3km away—arrived three hours later.
When they finally left, the raiders abducted three monks, Fathers Youa’nnis, Maximous, and Andrawes. They were brutally tortured all through the night, beaten with clubs, cables and water hoses, flogged, and asked to mock the Cross and pronounce the Islamic testimony. In a piteous condition, sustaining severe injuries and broken bones, the three monks were cast on a desert path at dawn and left where they were later found by the police. They were moved to hospital in Cairo where they received treatment. Pope Shenouda III visited them in the hospital.
The day after the attack, the police detained Rifaat Fawzy, a contractor who had been doing construction work at the monastery, and accused him of killing Mohamed even though Mr Fawzy was not present when the attack took place. His brother and partner to his contracting business Ibrahim, who had begun campaigning for the innocence of his brother, was detained two days later.
It was claimed by the police that the Fawzy brothers were charged basing upon the testimony of Mohamed’s father who testified the brothers had shot at Mohamed, who suffered some mental disability, from a distance of some 60 metres away. In July the after-death investigation reported that Mohamed had been shot at close range—some 1.5m away. The prosecution later ordered the release of the Fawzy brothers, but they were arrested on security grounds and sent to Wadi al-Gadid prison, among the most remote of Egypt’s prisons.
All through, the police took a stance which Abu-Fana officials lamented as collaborative with the criminals. Thirteen Arabs were haphazardly caught but could not be indicted since, not surprisingly, no incriminating evidence existed against them. No culprit was brought to justice even though, according to Abu-Fana monks, the attackers are known to the police; one of them who goes by the name of Samir Abu-Luli has the reputation of being a police informant.
Minya governor Ahmed Diaa’ Eddin described the incident as an “exchange of fire” between the two parties “over a land dispute”, an expression which put the victim and attacker on the same standing; the monks are, naturally, unarmed.
As to the so-called “dispute over land”, the monastery said it had officially purchased the land, was paying the annual land tax, and had moreover the approval of the previous governor Fouad Saad Eddin to build a fencing wall around the land. This approval, however, was never supplemented by the necessary building permit; the governorate procrastinated on issuing it and the wall was thus never built.
Despite the brutal crimes, the Egyptian media persisted in downplaying the attack, consistently taking it out of its criminal context and displaying it as a land dispute between the monastery and the Arabs.
Throughout June, July, and August tumultuous negotiations took place between the Church and Minya governorate in order to end the crisis. The Church wished to see the culprits brought to justice, the Fawzy brothers released, a fencing wall built around the monastery grounds for protection, as well as electricity and fresh water lines—which traverse land adjacent to the monastery—connected to the monastery. The governorate and the security authorities demanded that, for any of the Church’s demands to gain official approval, the monks should relinquish their testimonies concerning the May attack, a move which the monks adamantly rejected, and sign an unofficial reconciliation with the Arabs.
The governorate insisted on a redrawing of the monastery’s borders since it refused to recognise the land claim of the monastery. Following several visits to the site by official survey groups, it was proved that the monastery’s claims were right. But no fence approval appeared to be in sight and Zakary Kamal, the Fawzys’ lawyer, said the security authorities remain adamant in detaining the brothers to use them as a negotiating chip to force the Church’s hand into reconciliation with the Arabs. The crisis seemed to have reached an impasse.
Finally, Pope Shenouda III last August agreed to resolve the crisis through giving up 95 feddans (a feddan is 400 square metres of land) of the monastery’s 600 feddan-land in exchange for the right to build a fencing wall around its grounds to protect the monks and maintain peace. At the same time, Minya governorate granted the Arabs 10,000 feddans in the vicinity of the monastery. The agreement was concluded through an unofficial committee formed of Coptic and Muslim businessmen and MPs.
“The love of Egypt comes before the land,” the Pope said, and “peace is more important than the land.”
The agreement was made public with a lot of fanfare claiming the crisis was over. Minya governor, however, issued his approval for a wall only 1.5m high instead of the originally agreed-upon 4m high. This infuriated the monks, who remarked that a 1.5m high wall offers no protection and would moreover be swiftly covered by the sand dunes. They did, however, complete the 1.5m high fencing wall last November, and it is today already almost buried under the sand. They were granted no approval to raise its height to four metres.
Ramy Rafiq, the lawyer who represents the monastery and member of the Coptic Melli (community) council for Mallawi told Watani that fresh water and electricity lines have not been connected to the monastery, even though they feed the nearby cemeteries. “Are the dead more important than the living at Abu-Fana’s?” said Rafiq. Abu-Fana gets its power through gasoline operated generators which are costly to maintain, carry fire hazard, and environmentally unfriendly.
Back then, Watani was able to talk to the Fawzy brothers before they were moved to Wadi al-Gadid. Rifaat Fawzy said he had been in Gabal al-Teir monastery in Samalout when the attack occurred. He was questioned by the police and expected to be released following the questioning, but was astounded to find himself detained and charged with murder. As for Ibrahim Fawzy, he was detained three days later, during which interval of time he had been circulating news of his brother’s detention and innocence on the Internet and in the media. “In order for the murder charge to appear credible, a charge of possession of weapons was fabricated against my brother and me,” Ibrahim said. “We never owned guns nor do we know how to use them,” he said. “The after-death investigation on Khalil has proved our innocence, yet we are still detained. For heaven’s sake, how can two persons fire one shot?”
It was suggested that the brothers pay the family of Mohamed blood money, upon which they would be reconciled with the Mohameds and the murder charge would be dropped. Both brothers said they will not pay the ransom. They said they did not own that kind of money; they lived day-to-day and had large families to support. It is circulated that Coptic tycoon Eid Labib, offered to pay the blood money on their behalf, but the Fawzy brothers say that if the ransom is paid it is tantamount to admitting they had killed Mohamed. “We did not kill him,” Rifaat said.
Zakary Kamal, the lawyer of the Fawzy brothers, deplored the fact that their case is still, one whole year on, with Mallawi prosecution. It was neither referred to court nor were the charges dropped. This is highly unusual in a criminal case, Kamal said. Three release orders have been issued in their favour to date, Kamal said, but every time an arrest order is issued for them on security grounds.
Yacoub Fawzy, the younger brother of the two detainees told Watani that his brothers had had a lucrative contracting business that afforded their large families—one is father to seven and the other father to nine—a very good living standard. Today, he lamented, their families are forced to sell the furniture of their homes in order to live.
“It is very hard to accept that they are being detained indefinitely,” Yacoub Fawzy said, “And in such a remote location. The mere process of obtaining the necessary permits to visit them is pure agony. To say nothing of the long, arduous, costly journey to Wadi al-Gadid.”
‘For one life which was taken by an unknown culprit, two entire families are being unfairly sacrificed every day.”
And the Abu-Fana crisis remains unresolved. Without a proper fencing wall the monastery remains vulnerable to attack. The culprits who committed the horrendous crimes against the monks and the monastery have not been brought to justice. The Fawzy brothers are still detained and their families suffering. And Minya officials persist in the injustice they inflict upon the innocent.