9 October 2011
Following the Merinab attack, Copts get nothing but…
It all started on Friday 2 September, when the village Muslims of Merinab in Edfu, Aswan, surrounded the more than 100-year-old village church after Friday noon prayers, chanting hostile slogans. The security authorities attempted to resolve the matter, but it was found the protestors were demonstrating against the fact that the church building, which was undergoing a fully licensed renovation, would carry a spire and a cross. Prior to the renovation, the church had been a plain, mudbrick building with no specific features. Mar Girgis’s serves a Coptic congregation some 200-strong.
A conciliation session between the Church officials and the village Muslim elders was orchestrated the following day by the security officials. After long discussions, the Church decided to opt for a peaceful solution and acquiesced to doing away with the spire and the cross.
A couple of days later, on Tuesday 6 September, extremist Muslims again surrounded the church, this time demanding that the domes be pulled down. The renovated church building was designed after an old Coptic model that includes multiple domes on the roof; in this case they were six domes. Pulling them down meant bringing down the entire roof. The renovation licence included the domes, spire, and cross. Anba Hedra, Bishop of Aswan, said the church cannot renounce any more of its rights; it had offered an olive branch but the result was even more aggression.
On Wednesday morning the village Muslims closed all the ways leading to and from the village, and forbade the Copts from leaving the village to tend to their fields. They surrounded the Copts’ homes and threatened that, unless the Copts demolish the domes, the church building would be pulled down and burned. They contacted neighbouring village Muslims to mobilise for a Friday—after noon prayers—offensive against Mar Girgis’s.
The Merinab Copts demanded protection from the Military Council and security authorities, especially after the village Muslims were seen roaming the streets carrying knives, hammers, and various tools that may be used to bring down the building. Security forces surrounded the church but, according to the village Copts, their numbers were too few to fend off a large-scale aggression.
Offensive to Muslim sensitivities
Another conciliation session between the village Islamists and the Church officials was hosted by Aswan military ruler. The Islamists insisted they desired no ‘church’ in the village. Two local sheikhs, Mohamed Moussa and Ali Mekki, told Watani that the sight of a church offends the religious sensitivities of Muslims. “So where should the village Copts pray?” Watani asked. “Somewhere else,” Sheikh Mekki said. But they have been praying here for almost a century, Watani reminded. “The building was not a church,” the sheikh insisted, “it was only a guest house in which they held prayers.”
The conciliation session ended when the village Muslims adamantly insisted they would not accept a church in their midst. The talks stonewalled and the military ruler called it off.
An official demand was made to the Church to hold no prayers in the building for the time being, for fear of provoking violence. The Church had to acquiesce.
Peace reigned for a few days, but the verbal hostilities and threats persisted, and Mar-Girgis’s remained closed.
In a move that was described by the Copts as an appeasement of the Islamists, the local authorities asked the Church to pull down the domes and denote the building as a guesthouse, not a church. The authorities discovered the church had violated the building licence by going four metres higher than the building regulations; they insisted the domes be pulled down. The Church agreed and brought in a contractor who directly started on the job.
Meeting the Muslim’s demands did not save the church from a brutal assault on Friday 30 September; the extremists kept good on their promise to destroy it. Following fiery sermons by the mosque imams Sheikh Gaber al-Abadi and Sheikh Habib Mansour al-Sayed during Friday prayers, hundreds of Muslims joined in demolishing and burning Mar-Girgis’s. For seven full hours the assault went on uninterrupted. The Copts cried for rescue to the Military Council and the security authorities, but their cries went unheeded. Three Coptic-owned houses near the church were also torched.
When the security forces finally came in no culprits were caught since, according to Edfu chief of intelligence Lieutenant Colenel Mohamed Ezz, no-one knew who they were. Yet two days later, when demonstrations erupted to protest the fact that no culprit was caught, Lieutenant Colenel Ezz arrested eight Muslims and referred them to the prosecution. This despite the fact that Merinab Copts had already filed a report to the authorities with the names of some 40 men who had led the attack—the two sheikhs being on top of the list. Last Wednesday, the detainees were all released on a penury bail of EGP300 each. The lawyer George Rushdy, who represents the Church, told Watani’s Robeir al-Faris that Lieutenant Colenel Ezz was called in for an enquiry by the prosecution for having changed his testimony; after he had said that no culprits were known he arrested eight. A number of Aswan Copts told Watani that the detainees were released when a vehicle with a microphone cruised the streets around Edfu prosecution office blaring threats that more churches would be burned if the detainees were not released.
“No church; no fire”, governor says
Aswan governor Mustafa al-Sayed, told Egyptian State TV Friday evening that no attack had been waged against Mar-Girgis church in Merinab, “since there is no church in the first place; the building is but a guesthouse under construction.” He said the Copts violated regulations and went a few metres higher with their building. This provoked Merinab Muslims, he said, into vowing to pull down the violating height of the building, since “the Copts would not do it themselves”. The governor explained off the fire as a small blaze in a shed. What he missed saying was that the shed belonged to the contractor in the charge of pulling down the domes.
The Copts of Merinab have been living in a state of terror ever since. A Coptic villager who asked to remain anonymous told Watani that the Copts received threats that, “should any Muslim be arrested, our children would be targeted. We are under siege,” he said. “We can neither risk going out to work nor sending our children to school. Those who did were harassed.”
“We were living in peace with the Muslims,” the villager said. “The church construction went smoothly; Muslim passers-by would even smile and express good wishes. But by the end of August, a large number of our people who work in Cairo came back home to spend the Ramadan Eid with their families. Many of them are Salafis, and they persuaded the Muslims in the village that it is sinful to allow churches in Islamic lands. That’s when the trouble started.”
Copts as easy prey
The Coptic Church condemned the Friday terror in Merinab, describing it as a blow to national unity. It denounced the “security laxity”, reminding that the Friday incident was not done on the spur of the moment; it had been brewing for three weeks under the eyes and ears of the authorities.
The official leniency with the criminals who attack churches and Copts, the Church said, sends a message that Copts are easy, safe targets.
The Maspero Youth Union (MYU) issued a declaration in which it denounced the Merinab incident, describing it as a replay of the incident in Sole, Etfeeh, last March, in the wake of which no culprit was caught, let alone brought to justice. The MYU held the State, Military Council, civil society organisations, political parties, and political and rights movements, responsible for the victimisation of Egypt’s Copts.
The Egyptian Union for Human Rights (EUHR) called for the implementation of the rule of law. In a single week, the EUHR said, attacks were waged against churches in Aswan, Fayoum, Ismailiya and Sohag. The EUHR’s Naguib Gabrail called for the passage of the long-awaited unified law for places of worship which, he said, had it been in place “could have saved the situation to a large degree”.
Coptic and human rights movements have been vociferously protesting against the injustice inflicted upon the Copts. They demanded that the culprits be caught and brought to justice, and that Aswan governor, whose declarations were described as “unfeeling and untrue”, should be dismissed for failing to protect his constituency. They demanded the passage of the unified law for places of worship, and halting the power of fanatic, Wahabi Islamist movements. The protestors denounced the official laxity in dealing with attacks against Copts, which “worked to empower the extremists and sanction their deeds”.
A sit-in was held in front of Aswan governorate in the town of Aswan, and was still in session till Watani International went to press. In Cairo, Alexandria, Assiut, Minya, and Suez, rallies were held in protest. Leading the action were the Coptic rights movements: the MYU, Aqbat bila Quyoud (Copts Unfettered), Aqbat Ahrar (Free Copts), Aqbat min agli Misr (Copts for Egypt), and the National Unity Youth.
In Cairo, the Copts marched from the district of Shubra—famous for its high Coptic-population density—to Tahrir Square, Maspero, and to the High House of the Judiciary in Downtown Cairo. Inevitably, traffic was interrupted—in Maspero the Nile Corneiche was blocked for five hours. In the first hours of Wednesday, military and security forces fiercely dispersed the protestors at Maspero using tear gas, sticks and firing bullets in the air. Six Copts were injured. Among them was Ra’if Anwar who was beaten up by the security forces and ended up with 13 stitches in the head, a broken arm and back injuries.
The activist Father Matthias Nasr denounced the “undue violence” used to disperse the Copts. “For so many hours the extremist Muslims attacked the church and the Coptic homes in Merinab while not a bullaet was fired. But here, “ he said, “the Copts are treated so brutally because they dare protest.”
Aswan officials have been attempting to persuade the Church to sit down to a ‘reconciliation’ with the Muslim hardliner attackers, but the Church refused. The Church is persisting in its demand to see the culprits brought to justice; local politicians and security chiefs have been notorious for using all measures to pressure Copts into accepting ‘reconciliation’, a process which requires them to relinquish their legal rights.
Rights activist Magdy Wahib said that Islamist fundamentalists are planning to destroy the Egypt we know and impose a religious State, thus pulling Egypt back into the dark ages.
For his part, activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim urged the Copts to go on fighting for their rights. “Rights,” he said, “are grasped, not granted.”
Amid conspicuous media indifference of the incident and protests, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which sent a fact-finding commission to Merinab, issued a report on the incident. Its executive director Hussam Bahgat called upon Egypt’s civil society movements to stand up to their responsibilty towards Copts. “The Muslim majority in Egypt imposes oppressive, humiliating conditions on the Coptic minority. We all denounced the Swiss ban against minarets two years ago; today we ban Copts from having crosses, domes, or spites on their churches.”
Aswan governor “unfeeling and untruthful”
Aqbat bila Quyoud issued a statement denouncing the successive attacks against Copts, and the State’s feebleness in tackling them. It demanded that the Copts, who are part and parcel of Egypt, should be guaranteed their full, legitimate rights.
“The rulers of Egypt ought to stand against extremist currents fuelled and fed by suspicious streams with foreign agendas, whose only aim is to shatter the homeland.”
First and foremost, the statement said, official investigations should be conducted into the acts of violence committed against Copts; starting with the al-Kosheh incident in 2000 in which 20 Copts lost their lives; and through to the Nag Hammadi incident in 2010 where seven died; Umraniya in 2010, where three were killed; Etfeeh and Imbaba in 2011; to say nothing of the most horrendous of all, the Saints church bombing in Alexandria on last New Year Eve 2011, which killed 24.
The statement demanded the dismissal of Aswan governor for his obvious failure and for intentionally telling untruths to mislead the public.
The demand was echoed by the Cabinet’s National Justice committee, which had commissioned a fact-finding committee to investigate the matter.