As the Copts came under attack in Cairo last week, first in the northeast district of Khusous then at the grounds of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya , Watani was there to cover the events. Here we have two live testimonies, one from Nasser Sobhy who is also a Watani photographer and a resident of Khusous, and the other from Nader Shukry who was at the Cathedral throughout the long hours during which the attack lasted.
Sobhy begins his story in Khusous.
The day the attack against the Copts in Khusous took place I was not there; my aged father was in hospital undergoing a minor surgery and I had to be with him. My wife and two children aged nine and four were at home in Khusous though, as was my aged mother, which made that night at the hospital among the most fretful in my life.
Since our home is one street away from Mar-Girgis church, the epicenter of the attack, the gunshot and cries were all too real for my family. I was with my wife on the phone all that night; she was scared stiff. We went through all the precautions she should take should the violence get closer to home. She stocked up on water and made sure the fire extinguisher was handy, and cut off the power supply. My son was terrorised and panicky; I did my best to calm him down, but I thank the good Lord that my daughter was too young to realise what went on.
The violence, which had begun around 8:00pm on the evening of Friday 5 April lasted well into the early hours of the following day. At dawn, my wife was able to catch two hours of sleep and, when she told me that a calm of sorts reigned, I told her to take the children and go to relatives who live at the other end of Cairo, since there were no guarantees the violence would not erupt again.
My fears turned out right; as I took my father home from the hospital that day, the violence had already resumed.
Where everybody knows everybody else
Khusous is a place where everybody knows everybody else, which always made the containment of disputes relatively easy; I have been personally involved in such activity several times. I thus called several of the men who used to make it their business to calm matters down in Khusous, and we quickly had a plan of action and started moving to contain matters. It was then that I realised things were different this time; our efforts fell on deaf ears; no one would listen to reason. It was obvious that some force was at play rallying the Muslims to attack the Copts who, naturally, attempted to defend themselves. Gunfire was copiously used against them, as were Molotov cocktails.
One Muslim and four Copts were shot to death, one Copt was stabbed in the heart, and one suffered severe burns and died in hospital four days later. The Muslim was buried in his hometown in Aswan, and the Copt who was stabbed to death was buried in Minya. But the other four were to have a collective funeral at Mar-Girgis’s.
As I prepared to cover the funeral, however, I got to know that it had been postponed to Sunday noon, and that it would be held at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo. I was relieved at the decision, since the funeral, should it have been held in Khusous, would have constituted a ripe opportunity for more violence—and more bloodshed.
Tidal wave of grief
Sunday morning I prepared my camera and equipment and headed to St Mark’s. The crowds had already gathered; thousands were there to pay their last respects to men who had been killed for no reason other than being Christian. The sight of the mourners was heartbreaking; their pain at the sudden loss of loved ones who had committed nothing to deserve the fate they met was all-too-visible, but worse was the general sense of agony at the apparent unending suffering of the Copts on account of being Christian. Men and women were painfully wailing; the floodgates of tears seemed to have flung open.
The coffins of the dead were brought in, and with them a tidal wave of grief and anger. The service began, but this did not stop the mourners’ cries. Finally, Anba Raphail, who was presiding over the ceremony, managed to calm them down when he asked the congregation to recite, for a second time, the Creed. In one voice, the Christian Creed of Faith was again recited, an act which gave the congregation comfort since they were all there on account of this faith.
Anba Raphail delivered his sermon. He stressed that, even if justice is absent on earth, Divine justice will never be lacking. He said Copts are Egyptian and will always remain faithful to their land, and are Christian and will always remain faithful to the Bible teachings to love everyone, even enemies.
Why are they doing this to us?
Finally, the service was over and the coffins were to be taken to the cemetery. They had barely left the Cathedral gates when stones began to rain on the hearses and the mourners. The hearses quickly drove off, as the entire area turned into a battlefield. The mourners could not escape the unexpected attack against them and rushed back to what they imagined would be the safety of the Cathedral grounds. They shut the gates.
Apart from the terror, the bitter question on all tongues was: “Why? Why are they doing this to us? What have we done?”
Fear gripped me, for my safety and that of my equipment. Yet I had to put aside my fear as the victims started falling everywhere. The police outside was firing tear gas canisters at us; together with the stones and gunshot many were injured or suffocating. They were quickly moved to the makeshift medical centres that had been set up in the wings.
The entire scene was surrealistic; it was nightmarish. I stuck there for a couple of hours, then the terrifying thought occurred of what could be happening in Khusous. I called home and learned that indeed the violence there had resumed. I decided to leave to attend to those at home and, fortunately, was able to sneak out through the back gate.
Sobhy’s testimony ends here, and Shukry picks up the thread.
The attack against us took us by surprise. The mourners who had converged on the Cathedral since the early morning had included groups of angry youth who demonstrated as they went, but the police let them cross peacefully. But, as the hearses started leaving the Cathedral gates, we were amazed to discover that the police trucks had left and only the guards remained. With them were one police vehicle and a few officers, among them one Major General. As the mourners started leaving, he sparked the provocation by verbally taunting them. A few young men began an argument with him, but others intervened and matters calmed down. The other officers left the scene.
As the mourners resumed their exit a gunshot was fired at them. A few young men ran into the direction of the gunshot to find out who was shooting at them, only to find a gathering of other young men of unknown identity. These also taunted the mourners who answered back, and a stone-throwing fight ensued. Several cars parked on the sidewalk were hit.
Suddenly, the unknown attackers resorted to firing gunshot and Molotov cocktails at the Copts, together with whom were not a few secular Muslims, who could only counterattack with stones, and had to retreat into the Cathedral grounds and shut the gates behind them.
But that did not end the assault which continued with ferocity over the walls of the Cathedral grounds. Fearing that their assailants would manage to storm into the grounds, a group of the Coptic youth ventured out to attempt to push back the unknown attackers, again using stones, and barely succeeded at keeping them at bay.
A couple of hours into the attack, two police armoured trucks approached in the direction of the main gates of the Cathedral. The Coptic youth gave a collective sigh of relief in anticipation that the police would deal with their attackers. But alas, that was not to be. Instead, the attackers came out in full force and, in the protection of the police trucks, resumed their assault on the Copts who were behind the gates.
To compound the shock, one of the attackers burned a copy of the Bible as he stood in the middle of the policemen.
By 4:00pm the attackers started climbing over the rooftops of nearby buildings and that of an adjacent gas station and fired at us. This went on for a full hour when, as though it were not enough, the police started firing tear gas canisters into the Cathedral grounds.
The anger of those inside seared as we all realised we were no longer fighting our attackers alone; against us stood the assailants and the police.
Around 7:00pm the attack slightly subsided when Egyptian youth movements, who had got wind of the events, marched on the Cathedral to support us. They clashed with the police outside, which gave us inside a much-needed even if short-lived respite.
Finally, at 9:00pm, the Interior Minister arrived, and this had the immediate effect of enforcing some calm. But again, past midnight, another round of attack began which lasted for a couple hours.
Monday morning saw an end to the vicious attack, and those who had been trapped inside the Cathedral grounds all headed home.
Let the law take its course
At noon on Thursday a conference was held in Khusous, called for by the elders of the Muslim and Christian community, with the aim of regaining the harmony that had previously reigned among its residents. Participating were a number of officials among whom was Qalyubiya governor Adel Zayed who said a committee would be formed to assess the damages the Copts incurred and pay them adequate compensation.
Despite the usual clichés and honeyed rhetoric which extols the age-old relations between Copts and Muslims, the conference ended by stressing that it was no ‘conciliation session’ and the law should be enforced.
At one point, as the President’s aide Emad Abdel-Ghaffour talked of implementing justice, one incensed Copt cried out: “What justice? What justice are you talking of when you kill the Copts?
14 April 2013