21 March 2010
Marsa Matrouh is a coastal town that lies some 320km west of Alexandria. Its crystal clear turqoise waters and white sandy beaches make it an ideal spot for summer holidays. But wintertime turns the town into a sleepy place where the inhabitants go about their usual business. The town has been expanding in the last few years, however, to accommodate the growing number of holiday makers in summer, thereby attracting workers and entrepreneurs from various places in Egypt.
On Friday 12 March the district of Reefiya, among the new districts in Marsa Matrouh, was the scene of an attack against Copts which left 28 injured—24 Copts and four Muslims. Some17 houses, 12 cars and two motorcycles owned by Copts were looted and set aflame. The attack, which started at 5:30pm, was waged by Islamist fundamentalists joined by hundreds of the Western Desert Bedouin in the wake of a call for jihad against the ‘enemies of Islam’ sent out from the mosque microphone by the imam Sheikh Ahmed Khamis.
The Angel’s Charity
The main target of the attack was a building owned by the Coptic Orthodox Church and known as al-Malak al-Khairy, literally the Angel’s Charity, which housed a clinic and some social service activities including adult literacy classes. It was claimed that the direct cause of the attack was that the neighbourhood Muslims were infuriated because the Church was building a fencing wall around a plot of land it had recently purchased adjacent to the building and had blocked a road.
The Beheira bishopric had in 2008 purchased a 1400sq.m. piece of land from a Copt named Mufrih Ibrahim Wissa and built on it the Angel’s Charity building. Anba Bakhoumius (Pakomeus), archbishop of Beheira, Matrouh, and Pentapolis, told Watani that, in April 2009, a demolition squad accompanied by security forces partially demolished the Angel’s Charity building under the claim that the ownership of the land upon which it was erected was in doubt. Anba Pakomeus said he met the then Matrouh governor Saad Khalil and presented him with the ownership documents and the building permits, all of which were fully legalised, upon which the governor ordered the building re-built. “We did that,” Anba Pakomeus said, “and obtained a security permit to conduct religious rituals in part of the building, opened literacy classes and a clinic even before the entire interior of the building was painted. We cleaned up the neighbourhood and planted trees alongside the street on which the Angel’s Charity lies. Everything went on in peace and no Muslim neighbour objected.” Father Matta Zakariya of Reefiya church told Watani that the services offered in the building are free of charge and benefit Muslims as well as Christians. All was well until the sermon which incited the rioting, he said.
Recently, Anba Pakomeus said, the Church purchased a 180sq.m plot of land adjacent to the services building in Reefiya and began erecting a fencing wall around it for protection. On that fateful Friday, Sheikh Khamis, accompanied by a dozen bearded men, approached the workers who were on the site and began abusing them verbally, accusing them of having blocked a road. “This allegation,” Anba Pakomeus commented, “is totally untrue. The area which was being fenced belongs entirely to the Church.”
The verbal harassment worried Fr Bjeimi, a priest at Reefiya, who then, according to Magdy Mounir Tawfiq, 38, a worker who was on the site, ordered the workers to pull down the fence in order to avoid any problems. But this, Tawfiq said, did not deter Sheikh Khamis who started, along with the others, attacking Wissa who was also on the site. “A crowd of more than 300 people gathered,” he recounted, “and began attacking the building and hurling stones at us. I rushed inside for protection; and we closed the gates, but I was struck with a stone in the head and had to have six stitches.”
The rioting spread throughout the neighbourhood, with the mob attacking the homes, shops, workshops and vehicles owned by Copts. Those who could flee took refuge at the Angel’s Charity building. It ended up that some 400 Copts, including four priests, were besieged inside.
The Copts in Reefiya number some 2000 (300 families).
The police was called but the security forces which arrived at the scene were inadequate to control the rioting, even though they surrounded the building. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowd. Extra forces were called in from Alexandria, and the rioting raged on till 1:30am of the following day when the situation was brought under control.
Once calm reigned, the gates of the Angel’s Charity were opened and the security officials escorted the inmates, supposedly, to their homes. The injured were moved to Marsa Matrouh public hospital, most of them with injuries in the head. Two were later moved to Alexandria for treatment of serious wounds.
Instead of being escorted home, 16 young men from among those who had been besieged inside the building were taken to the police station where they were detained. The following day four of them were released since they were under-age. Mina Mounir Aziz, a preparatory school pupil, told Watani that he had been with his cousins at Angel’s Charity when the riots erupted. “Stones were being hurled at us almost incessantly,” he said. “We could not get out till after midnight, when matters finally calmed down. The security men offered to drive us home, and we boarded a vehicle which stopped at the hospital to drop down the wounded. We boarded another vehicle which, we were told, would take us home. But it stopped before Matrouh police station, and we were forced to disembark and go in. We were beaten and maltreated, and spent the night there. None of us could understand what wrong we did. We, along with the others who remain in police custody, had been hiding inside the Angel’s Charity building all through the rioting; why were we caught and why are they being detained? ”
Apart from the Coptic detainees, the police arrested 18 Muslims. All were charged with rioting, shouting antagonistic slogans, assault, and arson. The prosecution listened to the testimony of the wounded and the church priests who accused Sheikh Khamis of inciting the violence against the Copts and spreading hatred. Until Watani went to press, Sheikh Khamis was at large, and one young Coptic detainee called Mina Saad had not been charged.
Hard earned belongings lost
On Sunday, Reefiya boasted heavy security presence and almost empty roads. Only a few Copts could be seen on the streets, cleaning the debris after the attack and attempting to salvage what they could of their homes or property.
Watani stopped at the doorstep of the home of Nabil Wahba who readily invited us in. “At 6:00pm on Friday,” he recalled, “I was astounded to find some 40 men whose ages ranged anywhere between 20 and 45, hurling stones at my house and breaking the windows. At 9:00pm they came back with clubs and iron pipes, this time ripping the windows and throwing fireballs in the house which started to burn. When we tried to put out the fire, they hurled stones at us, while others were pulling down the garden fence and setting the other side of the house aflame. I found myself stuck inside the burning house with my elderly sister, until security finally stepped in and rescued us. What really breaks my heart is that my niece’s trousseau which she was storing safely at my place until she gets married in a few months was all burnt.”
Mary Girgis, Wahba’s niece, sat sadly in a corner: “We live in a very small house so I asked my uncle if I could leave all the items I was buying for my new home at his place. Now, everything is gone. For two years I was working as hard as I could and saving every penny to buy what I would need for my new life. I bought my things at bargain prices from various places in Egypt; it cost me a staggering EGP10,000.”
Robbed and burned
The house of Farag Sanad Luqa, 42, was burnt to the ground. We sat down to hear another heart rending story. “I was in my two-storey house with my children when stones were thrown at us and someone smashed the door with a wooden beam. I rushed my children up to the second floor but, a few minutes later, I could see the flames devouring the first floor after the assaulters had stolen my home appliances and my wife’s jewellery. As I looked down a stone hit my head and I lost consciousness. I don’t know how my family escaped and I was taken to hospital. I later went to the police station for legal proceedings.”
Awad Rashid Awad, 41, a worker, was inside the building when he received a phone call from a neighbour who informed him that his house was on fire. He could not leave the building because of the fierce attacks outside, but as soon as he could he went to find his house completely burnt as a result of a flaming gas cylinder which had been hurled inside. Awad said his house was robbed first before it was set on fire.
The two testimonies
Watani met 41-year-old Mounir Naguib, a teacher at the technical school, who was at a hospital in Alexandria for treatment. “I was heading to the Angel’s Charity building in my pick-up truck when the sight of a mob greeted me,” he said. As I stepped down from my car someone holding a knife stopped me and asked if I was Christian. When I replied in the affirmative he said I had to ‘pronounce the two testimonies.” [converting to Islam is acknowledged by pronouncing the testimonies that there is no God but Allah and that Mohamed is his messenger]. When I refused, he stabbed me in the thigh and hit me on the head. I lost consciousness. I was later taken to the Victoria in Alexandria where I got 20 stitches in the head, eight in the thigh and eight in my left arm. I am also being treated for numerous bruises in the back and chest.”
Sobhy Girgis, 33, a driver, was also taken to Alexandria with internal haemorrhage in the kidney due to injuries sustained from being hit by heavy stones.
Amid the hurt and pain, however, a ray of hope beams through.
Abullah Imam who is in his early sixties and was general manager at the Education Ministry before going into retirement, took his Coptic neighbour Magdy Fikry in his home for protection during the riots. He also rescued Karam Sobhy from the hands of the mob who were viciously attacking him in the street. Mr Imam strongly condemned the attack, maintaining that the attackers came from outside Reefiya.
The head of Matrouh town council Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Bari denounced the violence and said it was alien to Matrouh tradition. “We hope it would have no repercussions,” he said, “and would be limited to its real size. The culprits and those who incited the violence ought to be penalised. No one is above the law.”
Sunday saw the elders of the Bedouin tribes of Matrouh holding a meeting with Anba Pakomeus. They were joined with local politicians and security officials. They denounced the attack against the Copts, and offered to indemnify the victims and hold a reconciliation session. Anba Pakomeus said that making peace was among the most basic teachings of Christ and that peace would be welcome provided the Coptic detainees, who had been the victims of the assault and had been besieged inside the building all through the attack, should be released; the victims indemnified for their losses; and the culprits brought to justice.
“What happened in Matrouh,” Anba Pakomeus said, “is the natural outcome of the false religiosity that is today enveloping Egypt. Even if the Church had violated the law—which is not the case, he insisted—then the law should have been upheld and legal procedures ought to have been taken. It should never have been left to a fanatic preacher to take the law in his own hands, inciting such violence, damage and pain.”