The evening of Friday 3 October saw a violent attack with guns, bricks and sticks by the Muslims of al-Tayeba village in Samalout, Minya, against the village Copts. The 28-year-old Coptic man Yashua Gamal Thabet was shot dead while four Copts and one Muslim were injured. One of the injured, Michael Samuel Freiz lost an eye. A car and a pharmacy were destroyed and shop fronts were damaged. Police cordoned off the village, dispersed the fighters using tear gas, and detained some 15 Muslims and Copts. The villagers complained that the arrests were haphazard, in order for the police to use the detainees as bargaining chips to force both parties to ‘reconcile’ and calm matters down.
Despite the heavy security presence, some Muslims attacked the fields and huts of the Tayeba Copts again at dawn on Sunday.
Samalout prosecution is conducting hearings and has heard the testimonies of witnesses, Thabet’s family and the detainees. Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing by local politicians and security officials to achieve a urfi (unofficial) reconciliation between the Copts and Muslims in Tayeba.
Obviously, the reason which triggered the attack could only be guessed. A.A., a villager who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tayeba, 70 per cent of whose inhabitants are Copts, had never witnessed any sectarian clashes before. He said the attack was the outcome of the refusal of a Coptic carpenter, Ayman Bushra, to sell wooden beams or sticks to Tayeba Muslim minibus drivers who needed them to fight drivers from the neighbouring
Another Coptic villager, M.H., told Watani there could have been another reason behind the attack. Samy Girgis, a Copt, had put his house—which lies within an enclave of Coptic-owned houses—up for sale. When a Muslim villager offered to buy it, the Coptic neighbours hastened to place an offer for the house, and Girgis consequently declined to sell it to the Muslim. The result, M.H. said, was that, on Friday evening the Muslims attacked Bushra’s store, burned it and attacked his house and destroyed it to the ground. The attack extended to other Coptic Homes and shops in the village. “Thank goodness the Copts did not retaliate,” he remarked, “Otherwise Tayeba would have turned into a slaughter house.”
The funeral of Yashua Thabet was held on Sunday at Samalout amid heavy security. The police refused to allow the funeral to take place in the village church for fear of Coptic wrath. The Thabets would not accept condolences, a tradition which indicates they are bent on avenging their dead son or, at least, seeing his killer brought to justice. Security officials tried hard, in order to contain the matter, to persuade the family to receive condolences but to no avail.
The grief of Yashua’s father is unspeakable. “My only son had been working for several years in
Gamal Thabet accused Gamal Rustum, a butcher, of killing his son. Rustum was caught on Tuesday.
Rule of law
Father Iliya Shafiq of the village church of Abu-Seifein claimed the Muslim attack was the outcome of the spread of fanatic thought and a culture of hatred. The attack, he said, took the Copts off guard; it was one-sided, the Copts did not even retaliate. Fr Iliya said that a urfi reconciliation was being attempted by a “wise men committee” formed of local politicians, men of religion, and village elders. “This may be the only way to attain peace,” he said. Father Morqos from Samalout Bishopric agreed, but stressed that reconciliation did not mean in any way giving up the attainment of justice. “The culprits must still be brought to justice,” he told Watani. “The law must be upheld.”
Sheikh Sameh Nasr Salama, the village bailiff, denied accounts circulated by the police that the attack took place following the harassment of a Coptic young woman by some Muslim youth. “Tayeba is a conservative Upper Egyptian village where women are not allowed out of their homes after 9:00pm,” Salama said. “The attack took place at 10:00pm.”
The village Copts claim the police made that story up in order to make the fight sound as though it were mutual and not a one-sided attack, to balance the case and give them a prerogative to push for a reconciliation and place the incident in a non-sectarian light.
Three weeks ago another village in Minya saw similar sectarian clashes when a fight broke out in Dafash, a village of 15,000 inhabitants three-fourths of whom are Copts, between Morqos Abdel-Messih, a Copt, and Mustafa Ahmed Shehata, a Muslim. They were both caught by the police and signed a reconciliation document in the police station. The Muslims, however, were obviously not happy with the reconciliation and lay in wait for the Copts as they left the police station and were heading home, but the Copts, apparently wary of just such a move, used a back road to reach their homes.
The following day, with tempers still high, another fight erupted between a Coptic driver and a Muslim one over their right of way in one of the village’s small streets. The Copt Shenouda Milad, who had been sitting beside the driver Ayman Ibrahim, was clubbed on the head and moved to Samalout public hospital, while the Muslim villagers began attacking Coptic homes with stones and sticks.
The police attempted a reconciliation, but the Copts refused and insisted on proceeding with the official report; upon which the police cordoned off the village, banned the entry of media workers, ferociously broke into Coptic homes and conducted random arrests of Copts as a means of pressuring them to reconcile with their offenders. Some Copts left the village and moved in temporarily with relatives in Samalout to escape the rampage.
A super market owner who spoke to Watani on condition of anonymity referred to an incident which occurred last June during which the young Copt Milad Farah Ibrahim was stabbed to death by a Muslim who accused him of eavesdropping on his home. A ransom was later paid to the victim’s family in an unofficial reconciliation. Last week Minya Criminal Court handed the culprit a suspended prison sentence of one year on the grounds that the case involved predominant Egyptian traditions of defending family honour. The ruling enraged Dafash’s Copts since there had been no evidence to incriminate the victim, and the murderer had fully confessed his crime. The reconciliation never achieved its supposed task of calming waters; quite the contrary. The village school director abused two Coptic teachers and when they protested they were told: “What can you possibly do? We can kill you any time and pay a ransom. That’s all.”
Father Basilius of the village church criticised the harsh actions by the police and said the policy of orchestrated reconciliation was bound to backfire, since it was a mere tranquilliser which bypassed justice and allowed culprits to get away with their crimes.