It was approaching midnight on the eve of Friday [weekend] 26 April, and I was just about to turn off my mobile phone and watch a comedy on TV, when my journalist friend Fady Emile
telephoned. In a shaky voice and sounding fearful and despondent, he told me about the sectarian strife that was breaking out in his hometown of al-Wasta in Beni Sweif, some 100km south of Cairo, because of a Muslim girl named Rana Hatem al-Shazli who had disappeared.
Ms Shazly had been missing for a few weeks. When she disappeared, her family accused the Church of converting her to Christianity and facilitating her escape from Egypt. They gave Church officials one month’s notice to hand the girl back. When the deadline was reached on Thursday 25 April, Islamist radicals organised a projected film show in the central Tousson Square in Wasta that included a clear incitation against Christians. In addition, leaflets were distributed asking townsmen to perform the Friday prayers in the Tahrir mosque next to the Wasta church and to demonstrate in front of the church after the prayers to force the church to return the girl. They insisted the Christians had kidnapped the young woman and taken her out of the country.
Unfortunately, I was unable to ease my friend’s fears. In my capacity as the person in charge of the file for the freedom of belief and faith at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a rights NGO, and his capacity as a journalist; we both knew the dangers of instigating sectarian unrest by rallying and calling for revenge and collective punishment. Such moves have become staple ingredients in incidents of sectarian violence—more correctly, attacks against Copts—especially since State officials more often than not turn a blind eye and let the violence go unaccounted for.
Torch the town
I remembered that the girl’s father had given an ultimatum during his meeting with the assistant to the Minister of Interior Major General Abdeen Youssef on 23 April. At the meeting, which was also attended by the church priest and leaders of Islamist groups, the girl’s father threatened that if his daughter was not returned within two and a half days he would set the whole town on fire.
Security forces had previously failed to predict trouble and take the necessary safety measures, although they should play a preemptive role in preventing acts of aggression. They also failed to protect the lives and properties of Christians and arrest the aggressors. Painful memories surfaced of ordeals that I personally had investigated, along with agonising tales of victims of past offensives that took place under the watchful eye of security forces. I immediately thought of what happened in Dahshur in July 2012, when the EIPR warned the security forces about the tension in the village and called on them to protect the Copts and their property, only to see those same security forces acting against all common sense. In addition to being lenient with the violators, they failed to protect the Copts’ properties and left their houses at the mercy of the offenders. The security forces even asked the Copts to flee their homes in the middle of the night and head for the relative safety of the unknown, leaving behind all their belongings.
I thought of the numerous aggressions against churches that continue to take place under the eyes and noses of the security forces. Memories were still raw of the incineration and demolition of the Sol church in March 2011; the torching of the church of the Holy Virgin in Imbaba in May 2011; and the assault against St Mark’s Cathedral in April 2013.
In Wasta that Friday last April, I followed the details of the attempts of the Islamists to reach the church and the success of the security forces in dealing with the demonstrators and protecting the church and the houses and property of the Copts near the area where the clashes took place. Tear bombs were used with the sole purpose of turning people back with the least possible damage. It was among the very few cases where security forces succeeded in accomplishing their role without provoking negative comments on their performance, and with no violations of the law or citizens’ rights.
It was a rare incident in which the police handled the situation deftly.
Even much earlier than when the violence erupted, with the first hints at the possibility of sectarian strife, security officials held several meetings with the family of the missing girl, the town elders of Wasta, the priests of the church of Mar-Girgis (St George) and the local politicians to ease the tension, especially after the Islamists in town terrorised the Copts into closing their shops and losing their livelihoods for a full week late in March.
Once the police got wind of Islamist intentions and attempts to attack Mar-Girgis’s, they tightened security around it. On the Thursday and Friday when the attacks were expected, the security forces blocked all the streets leading to the church, and the head of Beni Sweif security, Major General Ibrahim Hadeeb, and the head of criminal investigations were both on hand at the scene of the clashes. Security was also tightened to protect the 27 churches in Beni Sweif, and the security forces would not tolerate any offensives or outlaw activity.
Eye witnesses insisted the police did not attack the demonstrators, even when they tried to break through the security barricades. The police interfered only when demonstrators pelted stones at the church, and the security officers then used nothing but tear bombs to send them away. As a result only one Molotov cocktail hit the church, causing almost no damage, and an hour later the demonstrators split into small groups which eventually dispersed in a different street in the town. It was one of those rare occasions in which security managed to handle a demonstration with zero casualties.
Nonetheless, and despite the success of the security forces in handling the crisis, statements made by officials were far from objective. The missing woman is 21 and thus has the legal right to make decisions about her life without anyone’s guardianship. Claiming that Interpol was notified and asked to return her to Egypt is nothing but a flimsy attempt to calm the situation and appease the Islamists. According to international law, the girl has committed no crime by choosing to live away from her family or by allegedly converting to another religion.
19 May 2013