The sectarian crisis in the village of Sharbat in al-Nahda, Amriya, southwest of Alexandria, is now well into its third week with no way out for the village Copts. Despite efforts by Coptic and rights activists to resolve the crisis
The sectarian crisis in the village of Sharbat in al-Nahda, Amriya, southwest of Alexandria, is now well into its third week with no way out for the village Copts. Despite efforts by Coptic and rights activists to resolve the crisis and end the injustice to eight Coptic families who have been forced to leave the village and have their homes and businesses auctioned off by the village Salafi elders, no end to the injustice appears in sight.
Violence against the Copts of Sharbat started on Friday 27 January, in the wake of a story leaked of indecent pictures of a young Muslim woman villager being circulated on the mobile phones of the villagers, sent by a young Coptic tailor, Murad Sami Girgis, who is married and has two children. A crowd of some six thousand Muslim villagers armed with sticks, clubs, and knives waged an attack against the village Copts. One house and nine shops were ruined, looted, and torched. Two are tailor shops which belong to the brothers Samir and Girgis Rashad, four furniture stores and an electric appliance store belonging to Abiskharoun Khalil, known as Abu-Soliman, and one shop for electric appliances owned by al-Sabea Andrawus. When the mob converged upon the Abu-Soliman shops, a member of the Abu-Soliman family fired shots in the air, hoping to scare the crowd away, but this only served to escalate matters. Later, as Andrawus’s house and shop blazed, Muslim neighbours took him and his children into their home for protection.
The police and fire trucks were called, but the Muslim mob would not let them into the village until Alexandria governor Usama al-Fuli arrived together with local MPs and security officials.
A conciliation session was swiftly held at the local mosque. Participating were the local government and security officials, as well as the village elders and Father Boqtor Nashed of the local Mar-Girgis (St George) church. It was decided that Girgis and his family should be expelled from the village, after which peace temporarily reigned.
Throughout the following few days, though, the Muslim villagers raised the ceiling of their demands, and official efforts at calming their anger failed. They insisted that all the Copts in the village should leave. They threatened that if, by Friday 3 February, the Copts and their priest had not left, what remains unharmed of their homes, property, and church would be burned.
The Coptic villagers kept to their homes in fear. Several told Watani on condition of anonymity that they resented the “inexplicable inaction by the authorities”. They felt unprotected, and neither the local security nor politicians did anything to stop the heavy-handed “collective punishment” against the Copts. “No investigation was conducted,” one eyewitness told Watani, “on whether or not the allegation that led to all this violence was true. And, even if we go along with the story that one man did something terribly wrong, why should all the village Copts be penalised for it? Where is the law in all this?”
Several Coptic families left the village for fear of their lives, but the Muslims insisted that all 54 Coptic families in the village should go.
Money: the root of the matter?
Nabil Sami Girgis, the brother of the Girgis who was accused of circulating the indecent pictures, denied that his brother had done any such thing. He told Watani the pictures were faked in order to be used as a pretext to attack the [wealthy] Copts. “Who is the young woman?” he bitterly asked. “No one ever mentioned who she was, and no action was taken against her by her family, which would have been normal had she existed in the first place. This whole business was made up because the Muslim villagers demanded that we pay them money, which we didn’t.”
The Copts insist that the real reason for the attack against them is not the unsubstantiated story of indecent pictures. A Coptic villager who asked for his name to be withheld told Watani that several Muslims in the village owed money to Coptic traders and, when they could not pay back their debts, they made up the story which brought on the violence. This, he said, explains why the Muslims were insisting that ALL the Copts should leave.
In an attempt to avert the attack promised against the Copts on Friday 3 February, a ‘conciliation session’ was held on Wednesday 1 February. Participating were the elders of the village, seven local Salafi sheikhs led by Sheikh Sherif al-Hawari, the local priest Fr Boqtor, as well as local politicians and security officials headed by Brigadier General Khaled Shalabi, the head of Alexandria Intelligence Apparatus. The decision was taken to banish six Coptic families from the village, in addition to the two extended families of Girgis who had already been ordered away in the first conciliation meeting. Major among the families banished was the Abiskharoun Abu-Soliman clan, a member of which was accused of having fired shots in the air to ward off the Muslim mob which was closing in on the homes and shops of the family. It later turned out that the shot fired by the Abu-Soliman hurt no-one but, as testified by Muslim eyewitnesses, a shot fired by a one of the mob injured three men. The sheikhs in the conciliation meeting also decided that the Abu-Soliman property and businesses should all be auctioned off by Sheikh Hawari. Even though Fr Boqtor objected to the ruling, his objection was overruled.
The elder of the Abu-Soliman clan bitterly complained of the injustice. “We are now being banished even though we did nothing wrong, and even though two houses and six stores owned by our family were looted and burned. We have sustained losses that run in the millions of pounds, and now we are being thrown out of our home village.”
The family decided to leave the village anyway; but the Muslim family of Hassan Farag, whose home lies 4km outside Sharbat took them in. The Salafi threats were too vicious to ignore.
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