12 September 2010
Security officials last week expressed wariness that sectarian violence might erupt in the village of Higaza Qibli in Qena, Upper Egypt, some 650km south of Cairo. The Coptic Catholic church in the village was last Monday burnt in a fire that entirely destroyed it. The church in effect occupied the third and uppermost floor of the building of the primary school of the Upper Egypt Development Society—a Catholic charity concerned with social development in Upper Egypt—since the erection of the original church building had been discontinued by a security order since 1993. Ever since, the Coptic Catholic congregation of the village used to pray in the temporary premises at the primary school.
The cause of the fire was, until Watani went to press, as yet unknown. Safwat Samaan, a rights activist in Luxor, told Watani that the criminal investigation authorities were investigating the incident. He said they appeared to think it likely that the fire was due to an electric short circuit or to an non-extinguished candle. But Mr Samaan was sceptical of such reasons since the last service held in the church was on Sunday evening, after which the electricity was cut off and the candles extinguished and a drape placed over the candle holders.
For his part, the Coptic Catholic Archbishop of Qena Anba You’annis expressed sorrow at the incident, and demanded a speedy investigation. He reminded that the Coptic Catholic Church needed a permit to proceed with building the church whose construction had been halted in 2003. The archbishopric had at the time demolished its old church which had become too dilapidated for worshippers’ safety, and had obtained a presidential decree allowing the building of a new church. But once they started building, Anba You’annis said, the security authorities stopped them. The bishopric took the case to court and, in July 2004, won the case. But even so, they have not been allowed to resume building.
Higaza Qibli was the scene of sectarian tension back in 2004 when a 58-year-old Muslim man, Mohamed Said Ibrahim, was killed in a fight in the village marketplace. Three Copts were caught and brought to trial for manslaughter; they were convicted and spent time in prison till 2006. In the meantime all attempts by the local elders and officials to reconcile the Ibrahims with the families of the Coptic convicts failed. The police therefore forced 15 Coptic families to leave the village and relocate in Aswan but, early in 2009, some of these families returned to Higaza. Following the Midnight Easter Mass in April 2009, three young Muslim men among whom were Ibrahim’s son opened fire on the people leaving the church, killing 22-year-old Hedra Soliman and 24-year-old Amir Stephanous, and injuring Samir Gad al-Rub, 37. The killers were caught and sentenced to life imprisonment, but the vendetta is still ongoing and the village has thus been under tight security ever since.