Directly after Friday Prayers today, the Muslim townsmen of Wasta in Beni Sweif, some 100km south of Cairo, marched on the church of Mar-Girgis (St George)
crying out Islamist slogans and threatening the Christians in town. Other Muslims threw stones at the church from the rooftops of neighbouring buildings. They were unable to access the church, however, because of the intensive security around it, they headed to the church of St Mary and that of St Abanoub. Some others marched against the police station.
The Copts of Wasta kept to their homes. This being the Friday that marks the completion of Lent, they had attended the traditional service and Holy Mass which today ended at 10 in the morning. Traditionally, the End-of-Lent Friday service ends early in the afternoon but, given that the Copts in Wasta had been receiving serious threats lately, the Church decided to end the service early. And even though the Coptic shopkeepers had closed their shops, again on account of threats they had been receiving, one shop that sells gold jewellery was attacked but the police was able to stop the attackers from setting it on fire. Many Coptic families left Wasta altogether and went to their relatives or friends in neighbouring villages and towns.
The police arrested eight of the demonstrators.
The demonstrators resorted to attacking public utilities and services, including the railway station, in an apparent effort to draw the security forces away from the churches.
The violence that erupted was on account of an incident that goes back some two months ago when a Muslim 21-year-old woman, Rana Hatem al-Shazli who is a student at Beni Sweif University, went missing from home. Her family, who are Islamist, alleged that Shazli was ‘tricked’ into converting to Christianity and is being kept in hiding by the Church. Since her disappearance, the young woman sent her parents several letters, which she also posted online, saying she had left home because of sexual abuse by her uncle, followed by attempts by her father to marry her off to a man she did not want. She wrote that she had married a Muslim and was expecting a baby, and that they left the country. But Shazli’s father, together with the Salafis in Wasta, insist that she was the victim of black magic by Fr Maqar of Mar-Girgis’s and that she was still in the country.
No success in containing the crisis
In the wake of these rumours the Copts of Wasta, and their churches, were several times targeted. At one point the Coptic traders were forced to close their shops for a whole week, or to risk having them looted and burned. Muslim women were ordered not to work for Coptic employers, and an attack using Molotov cocktails was waged against the church of Mar-Girgis. This started a small fire which was then extinguished by Father Maqar, and a few members of the congregation.
A Coptic family was caught and is currently being kept in custody, charged with facilitating the conversion of Shazli. Abra’m Zaky, who is in hiding, is the main suspect in that case, but the police has caught his wife, father and mother, and cousin, on allegations that they were his accomplices.
The Muslim town elders exerted huge efforts to limit the offensive against the Copts and their Church, which has been constantly repeating it had nothing to do with the disappearance of Shazli, but were not entirely successful.
Photos by Ramy Ramzy and Girgis Waheeb
26 April 2013