In an incident which has brought to a head-on the struggle between the Copts for their right to worship and the hardline Muslims who insist on depriving them of this right, an attack by the Salafi Muslims of the village of Ezbet Marco Thalla against the Copts left six Copts injured and two vehicles damaged.
The attack took place on Sunday 28 October as the Copts left the church of the Holy Virgin in the village of Ezbet Marco Thalla after celebrating Holy Mass. The church is the only one in the area and serves the Copts of Ezbet Marco Thalla and other villages in the vicinity of al-Fashn, Beni Sweif, some 100km south of Cairo. The fact that Copts from outside the village come to Ezbet Marco to worship has been a sore point with the Salafi villagers, who have issued threats against it under the pretext that the Coptic women are not veiled.
“Marco Thalla will burn”
Ibrahim Sadeq, director of the primary school in the village, told Watani that, as the Copts left church after Mass, they were attacked by a large mob of Salafis armed with clubs, daggers, and iron shackles. Sadeq, who suffered a compound fracture in the hand, said he was injured as a result of being hit by an iron hook. Two other Copts were also injured, both suffering bone fractures, and the two vehicles in which the Copts from the neighbouring village of Ezbet Ragi had travelled to church were damaged.
In the wake of the incident, local politicians and security officials orchestrated a traditional ‘conciliation’ session—an out-of-court settlement in which the Copts are more often than not obliged to relinquish their legal rights—to work out a ‘conciliation’ between the Coptic victims and the village Muslims. Sadeq says they were coerced into succumbing to the terms of conciliation under the threat that if they did not agree to reconciliation, “Ezbet Marco will burn”. Sadeq says he has written to President Mursi saying Copts are being persecuted and, being the weaker side, had been forced to agree to a conciliation that deprived them of their rights.
Refusal to sign
Other Copts, however, refused to acquiesce. According to Melouka Khalil, a Copt from Ezbet Marco, his family refused to sign the conciliation document. Mr Khalil said his family would sign only after filing a proceeding and ensuring that the assailants who attacked his family for no reason were caught. Five members of his family had incurred injuries when they were beaten with machetes, daggers and clubs by the Muslim mob.
Mr Khalil said he had filed a complaint at the Fashn police station even though the officer there advised him not to. “Ezbet Marco will burn,” the officer said, “and we won’t come to your rescue.”
Father Sharubim Shehab of the church at Marco Thalla said that under the conciliation conditions Copts should withdraw the official complaints they had filed against the attackers. No Copts from neighbouring villages may pray at Marco Thalla’s until a copy of the presidential decree by which the church was built is furnished, or until President Mohamed Mursi issues a decree in this regard. Copts from neighbouring villages are banned from visiting Marco Thalla on Fridays and Sundays, the days on which Holy Mass is held. The two damaged cars should be repaired, and a EGP500,000 fine would be applied if the Muslims or Christians attacked one another.
“The church is about 100 square metres and serves 27 families from Marco Thalla and 25 from Ezbet Ragi and al-Zarayeb,” Fr Sharubim said. “The church of Marco Thalla is the closest to them all, and is the only licensed church around. It was built some seven years ago, under the eyes and noses of the villagers and the security authorities, and a guard is assigned by the Interior Ministry to guard it.”
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a report in which it strongly criticised the conciliation session, and especially the participation of security officers in it. The EIPR report said the ‘conciliation’ violated all laws that guaranteed freedom of belief and the principles of justice and equality. It stated that skirmishes had taken place last Ramadan between Copts and Muslims in the Marco Thalla for the same reasons. A conciliation session was held then and they agreed to stop Copts from other villages from going to Marco Thalla until the end of Ramadan. When the Copts of Ezbet Ragi and al-Zarayeb went to the church last Sunday—two months after Ramadan—they were attacked.
“How can security apparatus be involved in illegal and nonofficial temporary settlements?” said Ishaq Ibrahim of the religious and freedom department of the EIPR.
The EIPR report stressed the State’s responsibility for protecting all citizens and defending their right to practise their religious rites, since the law is clear in that it does not prevent people from praying anywhere. The EIPR warned against the recurrence of such incidents, and said that Marco Thalla was not the first. Last May, the Basra village of Ameriya witnessed a similar decision when Copts were forced to stop hosting Copts from other villages.
In its report EIPR called on President Mursi to authorise all existing churches as a starting point for clear and fair legislation regarding places of worship. It also asks the general prosecution to hold comprehensive investigation and not to ignore complaints filed by the victims.
The National Council for Human Rights formed a fact-finding committee and said the council would issue a report about the incident after carrying out a full investigation.
“I am not against conciliation sessions, but only when Copts do not have to relinquish their rights. The Marco Thalla incident is a vicious challenge to the State of law,” says former MP Amr al-Shobaky.
Adel Antoun, a member of the political office in Maspero Youth Union, says the Copts in neighbouring villages were already suffering because they had to travel to church since there was no church close to them, “but now, they are even prevented from going to that church.” The most perilous point about all this, however, was that the extremists were turning into inspectors and asking to see the official church papers, Antoun said. It is common knowledge that all churches, especially old ones, do not have official papers, and this problem has been brought up with the State many times but has not been resolved.
The Copts in the village have written to President Mursi stating: “Copts are persecuted in Egypt, the police obliged us to reconcile although we filed an official complaint. How can the Copts of Ezbet Ragi and al-Zarayeb be prevented from praying in the Marco Thalla church when they do not have a church of their own or even a small building in which to hold prayers? Practising religious rites is a right guaranteed by the constitution and by international laws and traditions. The Marco Thalla incident is an extension of the serial humiliation and persecution of Copts”.
11 November 2012