Islamists in Libya yesterday attacked and burned the Coptic Orthodox church of Mar-Morqos (St Mark) in Benghazi. The church was consequently closed and the priest, Fr Pola Ishaq, was smuggled by the Libyan security authorities out of the area to the Egyptian consulate and flown to Cairo.
No-one has been able to enter the church in order to assess the damages.
“Preaching Christianity to a Muslim community”
The Libyans attacked the church in retaliation for the Coptic sit-in in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo and the burning of the Libyan flag. The sit-in, which is already into its third day, is being waged to protest the random arrest and detention of Copts in Benghazi since 13 February on allegations that they have been “preaching Christianity in a Muslim community”. The number of Copts arrested is not known for certain since there has been no official report on the matter. Some 40 Copts among those who had been caught were deported to Egypt on grounds that they had entered Libya illegally, 20 have been released and resumed their work in Benghazi, and another five Copts—among whom Ezzat Hakim Atallah died in custody last week—are in custody pending investigation. Apart from that, no official figures are known. Returnees for Benghazi claim that the real number of those detained may be anywhere between 100 and 200, and that they are being tortured in order to extract confessions form them that they had been conducting missionary activity.
The four Copts who are officially held are: Eissa Ibrahim, Emad Seddiq, Adel Shaker, and Sherif Ramsis who owns a print shop.
The Libyan authorities claim the detainees had in their possession Bibles and Christian books and pictures “that exceed what is needed for personal use”. The returnees to Egypt said the Copts were also suspect because most of them had crosses tattooed on their wrists, a very common tradition among Copts who usually have their toddlers and children tattooed at a very early age.
The funeral for Atallah, 45, was held in his hometown of Assiut last Wednesday. Thousands of Christians and Muslims attended to pay him their last respects.
Wails of agony and pain could be heard everywhere, and veses from the bible such as, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”, and “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, were written and hung on the walls.
Rev. Andre Zaki, Deputy Head of the Evangelical Church, demanded that the Egyptian government should investigate the brutal incident that claimed the life of Attalla, stressing that Christian blood is not cheap and that Egypt should protect its citizens, Muslims and Christians alike, whether on Egyptian soil or abroad.
Tortured to extract confession
Atallah comes from a modest family in Assiut, Upper Egypt, and leaves behind a wife and two children: Andrew, 15; and Sheri, 11, in Benghazi. His brother Effat told Watani that Ezzat had been caught by the Libyan authorities as he was working at his job in a shop that sells mobile phone accessories in Suq al-Hadiqa in Benghazi. He managed to inform his wife seconds before his mobile phone and car were confiscated. Through his Libyan partner, his wife was able to locate him and, after much difficulty, to obtain permission to visit him three days later. She says she found her husband in very sorry state, his body full of bruises. He told her he was being subjected to brutal treatment, torture, and humiliation in order to extract from him incriminating confessions.
Effat Atallah claims that when Ezzat’s wife enquired why he was being held, she found out there were no specific charges against him. He had been caught because his name was on the contact list on the mobile phone of Sherif Ramsis, one of the four detained by the Libyan authorities pending investigation, who owns a publishing business and was charged with smuggling books into Libya.
No after-death report
Effat Atallah told Watani that the Libyan lawyer, Yunis Abdel-Salam, had bee delegated to represent Ezzat in Tripoli, and it was throough him that they learnt of Ezzat’s death. The lawyer said that, together with Atallah’s wife, they had demanded that an after-death report by the official medical authorities in Tripoli, but their demand was rejected. Instead, Mrs Atallah was asked to sign a declaration that she renounced the right to an autopsy and after-death report, and approved the official report which said that Atallah had died of a fall that was the result of brain haemorrhage.
Ezzat’s brother told Watani that the family had no choice but to accept the official Libyan report, since they realised that the authorities would never allow the real reason to be cited. He also said they had been trying to get in touch with the Egyptian consulate in Tripoli, but had been getting no reply.
Egyptian President and government to blame
Copts, especially those in Libya, are severely disappointed with President Mursi and the Egyptian government for their inaction regarding the crisis.
President Mursi met the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in Cairo earlier this month, to discuss Egyptian Libyan relations; but in no way broached the outstanding case of the Copts detained in Libya.
Anba Pachomeus, Archbishop of Beheira, Matrouh, and Pentapolis (Libya), said that it defies reason to claim that more than 100 persons should leave their country with the purpose of preaching. It is consequently unacceptable, he insists, that they should be detained and tortured on mere suspicions with no clear evidence.
In the wake of efforts by Coptic activists, the human rights committee in the Shura (Consultative) Council—the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—tackled the matter of the Copts detained in Libya. After a first session in which the committee listened to the live testimony of Atef Nadi Habib had been among the returnees from Libya, the committee decided to hold a meeting with representatives of the minister of foreign affairs.
Habib said that he had been in and out of Libya since 1999, and had worked in the Jerid market. Last February, a person whom the Egyptians in Libya know as Eissa al-Wassiee came to the area, accompanied by a large number of men some of whom wore police uniform and others were bearded and wore jilbabs. They caught any Christian who crossed their path. Habib said that the owner of the shop where he worked tried to smuggle him out through a back door, but failed. Habib was held with others and they were all taken to a faraway detached spot. There they got to know that those who held them were affiliated to a Jamaa called Shariat al-Ansar.
“We were all searched,” Habib said. “They took the pictures of the saints, which we kept in our pockets or wallets for blessing. At first we were 37, but more and more kept on coming. Our captors took us all to a narrow place where they kept insulting us and deriding our religion, calling us apostates.” Habib told his audience that the elder among the Christian detainess, Amm Bishara, was the first to be torutured. He was stripped of his clothes and beaten. “He came back to us unconscious,” Habib said. “Then they started punishing us one after the other.
“On a Thursday morning, they took us to a place full of piercing stones and ordered us each to stand on a single foot. They stripped us of our clothes and for two hours kept beating all of those who had a cross tattoued on their arm. They threatened to kill us with a sword and to blow our bodies apart. They took pictures of us and published them on the Internet. They accused us of supporting organisations in Egypt that preach Christianity.
“They held an Egyptian priest, Father Pola, tortured him, and kept him secluded.”
Habib doesn’t think that he and the other Egyptians who were detained were held because of complaints filed against them. He explained that Egyptians in Libya are no trouble makers and that the Libyans trust them. All through their detention, Habib said, no Egyptian official visited them.
A number of Libyans, including Ali al-Fotouri and Sheikh Rehema asked for the relaese of the detained Egyptians on their own personal repsonsbility.
The second session held by the Shura Council’s human rights committee was attended by Ali al-Ashri, deputy to the Foreign Minister, as well as representatives of rights groups, and Coptic activists. Amid wide condemnation of the treatment of Copts in Libya and the failure of Egyptian authorities to defend them, Ashri evoked the wrath of the attendants when he claimed there were no Copts detained in Libya. Many complaints by Egyptians abroad are not truthful, he said, and are compounded by the fact that their papers are not always legal. He said the Libya was suffering from a security breakdown and that Islamist militias were beyond control by the government. “Libya is a neighbouring county,” he said, “and there is no intention of jeopardising relations with it.”
Ashri said that the Libyan authorities had listened to our complaint against the assault of the church in Benghazi and the priest, and the Libyan Prime Minister had said he was sorry this happened.
The Foreign Ministry in Egypt issued a statement condemning the attack of the Coptic church in Benghazi, and demanding an immediate investigation into the matter.
Fact finding commission
The Libyan ambassador in Cairo met with the Coptic activists and said that he had no details of the Copts allegedly held in Libya, and that there was a security breakdown in Libya, which gave Islamist militias an opportunity to threaten civilians. He promised to look into the cases of any Copts who claim they have been subjected to torture.
It was finally decided that a five-member Egyptian fact finding committee delegated by the Shura Council’s human rights committee should visit Benghazi next Tuesday to check on the cases of the detained Copts.
Pope Tawadros II is this evening meeting with the leaders of the Coptic movements that are conducting the sit-in in front of the Libyan embassy. Major among these movements are the Maspero Youth Union, the Coptic Youth Front, and the Free Copts.
15 March 2013