A series of recent events in which Copts in Egypt were subjected to harsh instances of discrimination served as a harsh reminder that the discrimination against Copts stems from entrenched social ills, and that it would take much more than a revolution or two to cure them.
The Misdemeanours Court in Armant, Luxor, Court recently sentenced Kyrillos Shawqy, a 29-year-old Coptic man from the village of Abul-Mahameed, to six months in prison and a fine of EGP6000 for disdaining Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The disdain charge against Shawqy was based on a ‘like’ he had made for an Arabic Facebook page named Knights of the Cross which had posted the cartoon.
Accused of burning his home
The events in Abul-Mahameed did not stop at the sentencing of Shawqy. The Muslim villagers waged a violent assault against the Copts in the village, throwing stones and rocks at their homes and shops, and burning property. A Coptic-owned timbre warehouse was set on fire, as was a garment outlet and two wheat barns owned by Sidqy Nassrallah and Ghali Adbel-Massih. All the small places in the village which Copts use for worship—there is no church there—were forced to close in order to appease the Muslim fanatics. Worse, the Coptic policeman Thabet Fathy Labib whose house was set alight was accused of burning it himself with the aim of setting off sectarian struggle. Luxor rights activist Samir Ra’fat told Watani that Labib was arrested and detained pending investigation in the wake of testimonies by fanatic Muslims. On the other hand, Mr Ra’fat says, six Muslim villagers who had been caught for rioting where directly released. “In a shocking turn of events, the victims were turned into offenders while the offenders ran free.”
Less than a week earlier, the Luxor Appeals Court had handed a six month prison sentence to Demiana Abdel-Nour, a Coptic teacher accused in June 2013 of contempt for Islam.
Hardline Islamism still thrives
The sentences raised concerns in the Coptic community and among rights activists. This it is not the first time the court has issued sentences based on questionable proof and under pressure from Islamic fanatic groups. Commentators say Islamists who violently demonstrate in front of police stations and courts during the long process of investigating and sentencing the defendants pose a challenge to the judges and decision makers.
Ms Abdel-Nour was accused by hardline Islamists in the Luxor village of Naj al-Sheikh Sultan of making a gesture disdainful of Islam while she taught her class a lesson on religions in ancient Egypt, and of saying that the late Pope Shenouda III was better than the Prophet Muhammad. She strongly denies the accusations. A lower court last year charged her with contempt of Islam and ordered her to pay a fine of EGP100,000.
The Coptic woman comes from a family of limited means, so such a sum was practically unattainable. One of Luxor’s wealthy Copts paid her bail of EGP10,000 while her family appealed against the fine.
Ms Abdel-Nour has the backing of her supervisors at the school and the majority of the pupils in her class. Only the parents of three pupils made the claim against her.
One of the defence lawyers, Hamdy al-Assuity, calls the judgement “shocking”. Not only is there insufficient proof of guilt, he says, but the fact that the Muslim Brothers (MB) are no longer in power has done nothing to change the culture of the local people, who include hardline Islamists.
Father Sarapamon al-Shayeb of the Qedisseen Monastery in Luxor, expressed his deep sadness at the unfair judgement. “Everyone was expecting that she would be aquitted, especially when her family appealed against the EGP100,000 fine. The new judgement turned out to be harsher,” he said.
Told what to say
Safwat Samaan, head of rights NGO Watan Bila Hodoud (Homeland without Barriers) in Luxor made an astonishing comment. “The legal investigations proved that specific teachers told the three pupils what to say when asked about what Ms Abdel-Nour said or did in the class.”
The principal of Naja Sheikh Sultan School, Mustafa Mekki, told Watani that the judgement was surprising and shocking, especially since the investigations by the administrative prosecution proved the pupils’ testimonies against her were false. One of the parents of the pupils who testified against Ms Abdel-Nour, a teacher at the Commercial Secondary School named Muhammad al-Adawi, was disciplined with a deduction of 15 days’ pay for making a false accusation against the Coptic teacher. The administrative prosecution also proved that some of the 10 signatures of the parents who signed a memo against Ms Abdel-Nour were forged, and that the testimonies of the pupils against her were contradictory.
Mr Mekki said that Ms Abdel-Nour was reported to be of irreproachable conduct, and there had never been any complaint against her. He described her family as honourable, decent people who were on good terms with their Muslim neighbours.
Mr Mekki believes that some Islamists had made the false accusations because they objected to her uncovered hair and to her wearing jeans. Such appearance, which is taken to go against Islamic norms, is usually acceptable by mainstream Muslims when it comes from non-Muslims in Egypt, but is met with antagonism by fanatic Muslims.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a rights organisation, expressed deep concerns about the increase in court cases related to religious contempt cases targeting minorities.
An official statement issued by the EIPR says this is the third case in Luxor in the first half 2014. The same court sentenced Shahira Muhammad Ahmed Soliman and Khalifa Muhammad Khair last April to six months’ imprisonment for contempt of Islam, on account of ‘displaying Shiite tendencies’.
The situation in Luxor is worrying,” says Ishaq Ibrahim, who is responsible for the freedom of religion and belief programme at EIPR. “Filing an official report against anyone accusing him or her of religious contempt is sure to land that person in prison. Especially because of the trend to judge accused people according to tradition not as per the law, and in the total absence of accurate investigations and absolute proof. The police just arrest the accused person without doing enough investigation.”
Mr Ibrahim says such cases pose a real test for the new political leadership on how it will abide by the Constitution and the law. The EIPR observed that some 48 cases of contempt of Islam have been reported from 2011 to 2013. The cases increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and 13 in 2013. Twenty were closed by urfi (unofficial) penalties or by penalties at work, while 28 cases were referred to court. The court found 27 of 42 people guilty.
In Egypt, when push comes to shove, tradition has the upper hand over the law especially in rural or ultra-conservative areas. This principle appears to rule uncontested in cases where conflict takes place between Muslims and Copts. And the Copts may be certain of one thing: under the pretext of ‘conciliation’ and social peace, they will be harshly crushed.
The most recent ‘conciliation’—an out-of-court settlement—forced upon Copts took place some two weeks ago in the eastern Cairo quarter of Matariya. A meeting was held between the Muslim and Coptic adversaries, the local security officials, and the local elders and mosque sheikhs. The Church, which would traditionally have been represented, was conspicuously missing from this session. The session began with a symbolic gesture: a number of the Copts entered the hall carrying burial shrouds, a tradition long held in rural areas when a killer accused of manslaughter wishes to escape the vendetta that awaits him. The meaning is that he should have been dead and buried because of the blood he spilt, but he asks for the mercy of those who hold the right to vendetta. Then the traditional ‘judgement’ began, and the ruling was that the Copts were fined EGP1 million, 100 female camels, five hiefers, and a 1000 sq.m plot of land on which they were to build a mosque. They were ordered to sell all their property and business in the neighbourhood and to relocate elsewhere. A EGP5 million fine was stipulated for breach of the agreement. The ruling was unspeakably harsh on the Copts.
Humiliated and oppressed beyond words
The story goes back to last February when two members of the Muslim Walaima clan unloaded a shipment of cement and bricks in the street right in front of a furniture store owned by the Coptic cousins who go by the family names of Zaghloul and Hitler. When the Copts protested and asked the Walaima to move the cement and brick an argument arose and soon escalated into a street fight. A mob of local Muslim Brothers gathered against the Copts, firearms were used, eight were injured and the Muslim Ibrahim al-Samati was killed.
The police caught a large number of men from both sides, among them 12 Copts. The Muslims were all later set free, but the Copts are still detained even though, according to their lawyer Saeed Abdel-Massih, there is not a shred of evidence that any of them shot Samati.
The event infuriated the Coptic community and rights organisations. Tradition has it that once conciliation is reached, all parties withdraw their claims with the legal authorities, sufficing with the out-of-court settlement. In this case, however, the Muslims did not relinquish their legal rights; the 12 Copts remain detained and will be prosecuted.
A member of the Coptic family who spoke to Watani on condition of anonymity said the Copts were coerced into that conciliation. “We have been receiving dark threats every day,” he said. “Our children and women are at risk. And we have been forced to close down our businesses since the February incident.” The Zaghloul/Hitler clan own 12 furniture shops and a fuelling station. “We have been oppressed and humiliated beyond words,” he said.
The Coptic youth movement, the Maspero Youth Union, joined the Egyptian Union for Human Rights in decrying the ‘conciliation’. “It is a disgrace, a return to the Dark Ages,” their spokesman says. “Such collective punishment should never be allowed today. And the fact that the police has taken part in it makes it utterly unacceptable.”
3 July 2014
Nader Shukry -Madeleine Nader