“Divine Justice will have its say, at the right time,” Pope Tawadros II tweeted last Monday, following the horrendous attacks against the Copts at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo and, a day earlier, in the district of Khusous in northeast Cairo. The Pope offered his condolences to all the families who lost loved ones in the events, stressing that we have faith that they do not die but go on to everlasting life. “We are waiting for the results of the official investigations,” he tweeted.
The attack against the Copts started on Friday evening in Khusous, and no one appears to know for sure how it all began. Eyewitnesses have different stories to tell.
One story goes that the violence started in the wake of an argument between the members of a Muslim family and others of a Coptic one. The Coptic family is well-respected; one of their sons, Iskandar Ayad Iskandar who owns a house in Khusous had run for parliament in the last elections. The Iskandars live in an area of heavy Salafi presence, and the Salafis have been known to harass the Coptic women—among them members of the Iskandar family—whom they insist are indecent because they are not veiled. The harassment incidents led to skirmishes between the Iskandars and the Salafis who threatened they would retaliate.
Major General Mahmoud Yusri, director of Qalyubiya Security, has a different story to tell. Two Muslim boys, Salah and Ahmed who are 12 and 13 years old, wrote their names and drew a swastika in red on a mosque wall. A worshipper who was leaving the mosque thought this was a cross and reprimanded the boys as a Copt, identified by Major-General Yusri as one ‘Milad’, passed by. Milad denounced the swastika and insisted it was not a Christian symbol; an argument that probably involved religions ensued; other passersby joined in; and the matter escalated into a street fight then into a wider, more violent assault. The mosque lies across the street from the Iskandar residence.
“The unclean Christians”
A call was sounded through a mosque microphone to “purge the area of the ‘unclean’ Christians”. The Muslims marched against the Mar-Girgis (St George) church, while the Copts surrounded their church and placed iron barriers around it for protection. The Muslims shot at the Copts who fired back. The Copts called the police who only arrived more than an hour later.
Matters calmed down once the police arrived, but this lasted for only about an hour. In the meantime, Mar-Girgis’s Fr Sourial was meeting with the elders of Khusous, with whom he enjoys excellent relations, to attempt to contain the matter, stressing that the Church was not party to the fight which brought on all the violence. But, at the same time, there were loud calls by extremist Muslims to attack the Copts, amid calls of “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the Greatest).
The Mar-Girgis church, heavily protected by the Copts and the police, escaped damage; but the pre-school church nursery which is housed in a building close by was set on fire.
When the Islamists saw that Mar-Girgis’s was too well-protected, they turned to the Protestant church in the area and attacked it with stones and Molotov bottles, but no damages occurred.
After midnight, Coptic-owned houses were attacked, looted, and burned. Among them were houses that belonged to members of the Iskandar family; the elder of the family Samir Iskandar told Watani that he had earlier in the evening moved all the women and children of his family outside Khusous for fear for their safety. Coptic-owned shops were also plundered and set on fire.
The Copts kept to their homes in terror; they cut off their power supply and made sure they had water on hand to put out any fires.
One Muslim, the 18-year-old Mohamed Mahmoud, was shot to death, as were four Copts. Victor Saad Manqarious, 35, was shot in the head; Morqos Kamal Mitry, 25, shot in the heart; Marzouq Attiya Nessim, 45, shot in the head and back; and Essam Qadri Zakhary, 37, shot in the heart.
Daoud Farouq Kamel, 34, was stabbed with a knife. His younger brother Kyrillos, 17, told Watani that they had been crossing in front of Mar-Girgis church. “Four men stopped us and began by asking my brother what his name was. They then asked what his religion was; when he said he was Christian and, by that time they had spotted the cross tattooed on his wrist, they drove a knife into his heart. As he fell, they turned to me, and took all the money I had, then fled. I rushed my brother to hospital, but there he breathed his last.” Kamel was buried in his home village of Nazlet al-Amoudein in Minya, Upper Egypt, where his funeral turned into a demonstration against the injustice inflicted upon the Copts on account of their religion, while the authorities choose to do nothing.
A sixth Copt, the 31-year-old Hilal Saber Hilal suffered severe burns and died in hospital last Wednesday.
As the violence and gunfire escalated, the police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Two Iskandar brothers, Iskandar and Naguib, were summoned by the prosecution for questioning. Their father said he feared that his sons would be used as scapegoats to appease the Islamists, as happened in other cases.
Major General Yusri said that 32 persons, Muslims and Copts, had been caught for questioning.
Bitter funeral for Khusous Copts
The funeral for the four who were shot to death was held at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, on Sunday.
Presiding over the ceremony was Anba Boutros, Bishop General of Shibeen al-Qanater; and participating were a number of bishops and priests, among whom was Anba Moussa, Bishop of Youth; and Anba Raphail, head of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Several public figures, politicians, and rights activists attended.
The family members of the victims held banners on which they wrote: “The responsibility for the death of our people lies squarely on the shoulders of [President] Mursi,” and “No for the hatred propagated against Copts”. Several times the service was interrupted with angry cheers against Mursi and his regime.
Sensing the deep wrath and bitterness of the congregation, Anba Raphail asked them to repeat the recital of the creed, which they unanimously did. The loud, collective declaration of the Christian faith served to give a respite to the overflowing expression of grief. Anba Raphail then proceeded to deliver his sermon.
“This is not the first time we gather to pay last respects to beloved ones who lost their lives in such terrible events,” he said, “We wish, however, to convey three messages. The first is to the Heaven in whose justice we believe. Jesus Christ taught us that no blood goes unanswered for before God. The second we say to Egypt: we will not leave. We will remain here in our land. The third message is to us, Egypt’s Christians: We will never forsake our faith. Bloodshed urges us to adhere more to the teachings of the Bible, to love all.”
No end to the violence?
Once the funeral was over and the congregation began spilling out of the Cathedral, they found themselves under attack by unknown assailants who threw stones at them and hurled Molotov bottles at the Cathedral. The Copts were forced to go back into the Cathedral grounds and shut the gates for safety, but this was only a safety of sorts, since the assailants continued to target them with Molotovs and gunfire which they shot from the roofs of neighbouring buildings. Several climbed the top of the Cathedral walls and shot at the Copts inside.
An Interior Ministry source accused the Copts of having started the violence, and said that the locals answered back in counter-violence. The Copts categorically deny that.
The attack against the Cathedral lasted for over five hours; eyewitnesses said they were being attacked by masked Islamists and hooligans. The security forces came in but, according to eyewitnesses, did nothing to disperse the attackers or to stop the attack. Instead, they fired tear gas canisters into the Cathedral grounds where the terrorised Copts had taken refuge. This led the Copts to take all the women into the church building, and burn car tyres in order for their smoke to neutralise the tear gas.
According to Health Ministry figures, two died, and 89 were injured.
In the meantime, the Copts in Khusous were again under attack. The Copts, who lost all hope that the security forces will protect them, sent out frantic calls for the army to defend them.
Where is the Pope?
The Pope was nowhere to be seen or heard, which goes contrary to his character of being right on the spot of events, and which had the Copts deeply worried.
News had circulated the day before that he had asked for the funeral of the Khusous victims to be postponed from Saturday afternoon to Sunday in order for him to preside over the service. He did not do that and Anba Raphail presided instead. The Pope was said to be in Alexandria which he then left to the Anba Bishoi monastery in the Western Desert.
The papal secretary Fr Angaelus said the Pope would be at St Mark’s on Wednesday for his weekly prayer meeting, and would accept condolences on Thursday morning.
Monday evening, the Pope gave an interview over the phone to the independent OnTV Channel. He said that President Mursi had been with him on the phone and offered his condolences for the death of the six Copts. The President, Pope Tawadros said, promised protection for the Copts and the Cathedral, “but we find no such thing on the ground.”
“Courteous rhetoric on the part of those in authority is not enough,” the Pope said. “The Copts need to see this translate into real action. The attacks against them in Khusous and at St Mark’s has reached the point of an unalloyed assault while the State looks on; this is very painful for the Copts. Egypt’s image in front of the world ‘is in the dust’ [meaning deplorable].
“The rights of the victims,” he insisted, “are in the hands of the State and the community.” He reminded viewers that the Coptic Church is an all-Egyptian institution that has been there for some 2000 years.
The Presidency and the Church
On Tuesday, a statement signed by Fr Angaelus announced that: “In light of the sad and painful events, and in mourning for the souls of our children who lost their lives in Khusous and at the Cathedral, his Holiness Pope Tawadros II has decided to cancel the Wednesday 10 April 2013 prayer. He also decided to postpone receiving condolences, which was scheduled for Thursday 11 April 2013, to a later date which will be determined in time”.
The statement conveyed the Pope’s call to the congregation to pray for the safety of the homeland and its religious institutions.
The afternoon saw a meeting between Church leaders and representatives of the presidency at St Mark’s, to discuss the ‘Cathedral incident’. Representing the Church were Anba Moussa, Bishop-General Anba Ermiya, and the Pope’s secretaries Fr Seraphim al-Suryani and Fr Angaelus, as well as Fr Sergius Sergius, the Patriarchal Deputy. Also present were the Coptic businessman Hany Aziz and the politician Marianne Malak who is a member of the National Council for Human Rights. Representing the presidency were the President’s aides Pakinam al-Sharqawi and Emad Abdel-Ghaffour, and the spokesman for the presidency Ayman Ali.
Once the meeting concluded, the presidency representatives refused to comment on what went on in the meeting, and asked the Church representatives not to hold any press conference or give comments on the meeting to the media.
When pressed by the reporters, however, Fr Sergius, said the Church demanded the enforcement of the law and that the culprits should be brought to justice. To further pressure by the reporters he merely said: “Pray. Keep praying.”
The Melli Council; and Parliament
The Coptic Orthodox Church’s Melli (laity) Council convened and issued a strong-worded statement in which it condemned the repeated attacks against the Copts in the wake of which no culprit was ever caught or brought to justice, the systematic charging of public sentiment against them, and the inaction of the authorities before all that. The Council placed the responsibility for the violence against the Copts squarely on the shoulders of the President and the government. It declared it would resort to all legitimate, legal means to regain the rights of the Copts in their capacity as Egyptian citizens, and would remain in constant session to follow on the events. Finally, the statement declared the Council’s full support of Pope Tawadros II. The full text of the Melli Council statement is posted online at http://www.wataninet.com/watani_Article_Details.aspx?A=38934
Earlier in the afternoon, the Shura Council—the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—held a session to discuss the Khusous/Cathedral events. Heated debate arose between the Islamist MPs who insisted on blaming the events on the Copts whom they branded as ‘extremist’, and the Coptic MPs who rejected such allegations and said they were meant to direct the blame away from the real culprits. The Coptic MPs walked out in protest, and the Shura Council Speaker decided to refer the entire matter to the Committee for Arab and Foreign Affairs and National Security.
A report issued by Essam al-Haddad, foreign policy aide to the President, alleged that the Coptic mourners, once they had done with the funeral, attacked the passersby in the streets and damaged their cars, which brought on a counterattack by the locals. The report incensed the Copts who saw it as a flagrant falsification of the facts.
The attacks against the Copts brought on condemnations left and right, with marches and rallies held by various secular movements in support of the Copts and decrying the polarisation of Egypt along religious lines.
Condemnations were unanimous in that the attack against the headquarters of the Coptic Church was a disgraceful act, unprecedented in Egypt’s history, and should never go unaccounted for. They blamed the President and the Interior Ministry for it, and warned that it stood to threaten Egypt in its entirety. The blame came from the Council of Egypt’s Churches, the Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Egypt, Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, rights activists, and secular political movements all over Egypt. In Alexandria and in Minya, Upper Egypt, candlelight vigils were held in black mourning clothes to honour the victims. Protests were also held by Copts in the Diaspora.
As Watani went to press, the security authorities had caught two Coptic activists who had been among the Copts at the Cathedral grounds. Michael Morqos, a member of the Maspero Youth Union; and activist Shady Samy were caught from their respective homes when the security forces broke into them at dawn on Friday. The two young men had been hospitalised for treatment of the injuries they suffered during the assault against the Cathedral, and had left hospital and were recuperating at home.
Reported by Nadia Barsoum, Nader Shukry, Nasser Sobhy, Mariam Rifaat, Michael Victor, Adel Mounir, Marguerite Adel
Photos by Nasser Sobhy
14 April 2013