In North Sinai and Upper Egypt, Copts are victims of blackmail and kidnappings
Predictably, where Copts in Egypt are concerned, it is the collective violence against them that draws the most media attention and brings them into the spotlight. But violence as in attacks against individuals, churches, homes, livelihoods and the like is not the only form of oppression practised against the Copts even if it is the most noted. Copts, especially in Upper Egypt and rural areas have been victims of a steady wave of crime which includes murder, blackmail, kidnapping for ransom, and being forced to pay to local strongmen tribute money; those who refuse to pay do that at their own and their children’s peril. This type of crime is strongly connected to inadequate official security in the neighbourhoods concerned and, especially in cases of kidnapping for ransom, targets wealthy or well-to-do Copts.
Eternally peaceful and in many cases deprived of official protection, Copts have always been the easy prey in Egypt. Crime that targets Copts thus always existed, but it peaked during the last two-and-a-half years since the 25 January 2011 Revolution which ended with the stepping down of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. The breakdown in security that followed and never went back to the pre-Revolution level, in tandem with the rise of Islamist power which in turn gave a strong boost to hatred of Copts and urged violence against them, all worked to achieve a marked upsurge of Coptic related crime. The overthrow of the Islamist regime of President Muhammad Mursi on 3 July 2013 as a result of the more than 30 million-strong mass protests against him on 30 June 2013 and subsequent military intervention brought on a vicious wave of crime against Copts. This was not surprising, seeing that security forces were already overburdened fighting a battle the Islamists were heavily waging against police forces and stations; and that the Copts were known to have been with the revolution that overthrew Mursi.
The Egyptian localities most notorious for crimes against Copts have been North Sinai and the Upper Egyptians regions of Minya, Assiut, and Nag Hammadi which has alone witnessed some 49 kidnap-and-ransom crimes during the last two years.
Some crimes were committed for no reason other than hate. Early last July, Father Mina Aboud Sharubim, 39, was shot to death by masked men as he walked in front a Church-owned administrative building in the North Sinai town of Arish. Fr Mina was rushed to Arish Public Hospital where he breathed his last.
The scourge of Copts, however, has been the kidnap-and-ransom crimes.
According to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a reputable Egyptian rights group, out of the 34 kidnap crimes in the Upper Egyptian region of Nag Hammadi which came to the attention of EIPR during the last two months 31 victims were Copts and four were Muslims. “There are no accurate statistics about these crimes,” Ibrahim says, “since many families prefer to quietly ransom their loved ones instead of risking more lives if they report the crime.” He confirms that Copts are targeted much more than Muslims because they are usually the more affluent traders and professionals, and in addition are hated and poorly protected.
In a matter of only two weeks last month, some 10 Copts were kidnapped. And throughout the last two months, another 10 Copts were killed either as they resisted their kidnappers or because their families were unable to ransom them.
Last July, the body of the 65-year-old Magdy Lamei was found, his head severed from his body, on a street in the cemetery district in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuwayed where he had lived. Lamei, a trader, had been kidnapped by masked men as he walked on the street in front of his home last Saturday, and a ransom of EGP300,000 demanded of his family. When the family couldn’t come up with the ransom, Lamei was beheaded.
Another Copt, Hany Samir Kamel, 37, was shot to death in the North Sinai town of al-Arish.
Three masked men also kidnapped the 20-year-old Mina Mitry, in one of the main streets in Arish. Mitry was taken at gunpoint as he stood in front of the shop owned by his father whom he works with, on Assiut Street in Arish. The kidnappers later contacted the father and asked for EGP150,000 in ransom. The father paid the ransom and his son was released, but none of the culprits was caught.
All the Christian residents of the North Sinai towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayid have, since January 2011, trickled out of their hometowns which were frequently targeted by the Islamist Jihadis and the Hamas elements that stationed themselves in Sinai. Also last July, the Egyptian Armed Forces declared the Peninsula a zone of war against terrorism.
But not everyone is as lucky as Mitry was. Mamdouh Ragheb Sidhom, 60, was kidnapped and a ransom of EGP1 million demanded of his family. His wife and four daughters swore they had no access to such a sum since Sidhom, who owns a wooden furniture store, has all his money tied up in market deals. His brother-in-law negotiated with the kidnappers, reducing the sum to EGP200,000. They agreed on the time and place to hand the money, and the family reported that to the police. The police caught two of the kidnappers, but Sidhom never returned; his body was found cast under a tree at the entrance of the nearby village of Salam.
In the Assiut village of Shutb, the seven-year-old Coptic Youssef Nathan Hilal was kidnapped and a ransom demanded, but his father reported it to the police. Before the ransom was paid, the little boy’s body was found in a ditch. It wasn’t much comfort to his bereaved mother and father that the police caught the criminals.
In the Assiut district of Quossiya, the 64-year-old Eliya Shuhdy Boulos was shot to death when he attempted to rescue another Copt, Raouf Hanna from being kidnapped. The criminals did kidnap Raouf and released him later when his family paid the ransom.
The stories go on and on. Again in Quossiya, the disfigured body of Waheed Kidwani, 35, was found in a sac cast on a deserted spot; his family had been unable to pay the ransom.
Many Coptic families prefer to quietly ransom their children or men without reporting the kidnappings. This happened with the child Ayman—his family asked that only his Christian name be used—of the town of Abnoub in Assiut, and the 35-year old Adel Salama of Maghagha, Minya. The family of the physician Mina Ephraim of Nag Hammadi, who was kidnapped as he drove home from the clinic in the evening, ransomed him and to this day refuses to disclose the sum of the ransom they paid or even talk about the incident.
The kidnapped who were rescued commonly report the same stories. They complain of no maltreatment, merely being blindfolded all the time in order not to recognise their kidnappers or the place in which they were kept. Otherwise they are left alone, and given some food and drink.
Specific villages are known for kidnapping Copts; among them Abu-Gazzam, Hamra Dom and Ghosa in Nag Hammadi. These villages are close to the eastern hill country which the criminals know as the back of their hands and in the caves of which they hide to escape the police. These criminals are known for their activity in the illegal arms trade. The police have failed to penetrate these villages.
“I don’t bow down to anyone”
Two cousins who refused to succumb to the blackmail paid for it with their lives. The agriculturalist Emad Lutfi Demian, 52, and his cousin Medhat Sidqy Demian, 37, of the village of Shamiya, Assiut, were contacted on the evening of Wednesday 11 September by A.M, who is a notorious outlaw and gunrunner in the area, and who demanded EGP10,000. Watani’s Basma William met Emad’s wife, Hayat, who recalls that Emad answered that he required no service from anyone and would thus pay no-one anything. He headed to the police station where he filed a report and, early the following morning, took his children Rania, Ereni, Mary, Youssef who are all in school, and the one-and-a-half year old John to their aunt in the neighbouring village of Sahel for fear for their lives. On his way home he again went to the police station and told them he would call them upon any encounter with the blackmailers.
Once home, A.M again called and, when he found Emad was home, said he would pass by. Emad tried to call the police but got no answer. Meanwhile, the blackmailer arrived with his company. As Emad offered them tea and iced water, his cousin Medhat heard of the story and rushed to be with him. His wife Mervat cautioned him against them and said it appeared the police would do nothing, and they had better pay the money. But Medhat said: “No, I don’t bow down to anyone,” and left. Once he entered Emad’s house the criminal shouted, shut the door, shot them both and fled. Emad had three shots in the head and two in the heart; Medhat was thrown over him with three shots in the back.
9 October 2013