What happened to the Copts in Sirte?

14-01-2015 04:43 PM

Nader Shukry

Some 20 Copts have been kidnapped in Libya, with no news whatsoever about their whereabouts or whether or not they are still alive

The joy of Christmas turned to chilling fear and worry for the Copts when news circulated that 20 Coptic men had been kidnapped in Sirte, Libya. Thirteen Egyptian expatriates were preparing to return to their families in Samalout, Minya, to celebrate Coptic Christmas on 7 January when they were seized in Sirte on 3 January. There is still no news of their whereabouts, nor of another seven Copts who were taken a week earlier.

Destitute villagers
Watani went to the home villages of the kidnapped Copts—al-Our, al-Gebali, Dafash, Samson, al-Sobi and Menbal—where their families live. These families live on the verge of destitution. Their homes, which are similar to one another, contain very little furniture, all of it ramshackle. Some have little but a small rug or bed. The lighting is dimmed to conserve electricity. Each house has one or two small rooms with an adjoining shed for birds and livestock: the houses line alleyways so narrow that they allow just one person with a cow to pass. The villagers live from hand to mouth; they work hard for their livelihood, which scarcely ever exceeds EGP30 (USD4.5) a day. They might work for a day and be without employment for another two, so finding work in Libya, despite the unrest there, did not appear to them to be the worst of choices.
When not working, the villagers customarily sit in front of their houses to chat, there being little to do in the way of entertainment. However, on the day that Watani visited the village there was no chatting; everyone sat in despondent silence broken only by the anguished cries of women and the weeping of the children whose fathers had disappeared in Sirte.


Heartbroken mother
Watani met the brother of Abanoub Ayad, one of the kidnapped Copts. Ibrahim Ayad said that their mother was heartbroken and her health had taken a severe downturn since she learned of her son’s kidnapping.
Mr Ayad complained that so far officials had taken no positive action and that all the statements he heard were contradictory. They only learnt of the kidnapping from friends in Libya who had seen masked gunmen attacking their house before the dawn prayer and taking the Copts away.
Officials say that Libya is out of official control, and especially Sirte which is controlled by Islamists. Accordingly official interventions have failed, but attempts at mediation are being made through elders of tribes that straddle the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Abanoub’s father Ayad Attiya Fallah said his 24-year-old son travelled to Libya to work eight months ago and was sending part of his wage to his family.
“My 38-year-old brother went to Libya to look for work. Officials blame us for going there despite official warning, but they do so as they sit in air-conditioned offices; they never come here to see how we live or how hard it is to find regular work or to get paid even EGP10,” said Maher Youssef Tawadros, brother of another kidnapped Copt, Makram Tawadros. Maher himself is unemployed, and when we met him he was sitting in front of his house with the young sons of his absent brother.
According to Makram’s wife, the last time her husband contacted them was on New Year Eve when he talked to his children Shenouda, 14; Youssef, 6; and Injy, 2.


Making a living
Sobhi Ayad, a cousin of Samuel Alham, said people should not blame them for going to Libya. “We don’t travel to increase our capital or to make investments. We work in foreign countries just to make a living.” Alham comes from the village of al-Our and has three children: Peter, 6, Irene, 4, and Pola, 2. Most Copts in al-Our, where they represent 50 per cent of the population of 5,000, are farmers or charcoal burners.
Abadir Makeen said his 26-year-old brother Milad went to Libya leaving his one-year-old son Samuel, and that when his mother heard he had been kidnapped she lost consciousness and has since then been in hospital in intensive care. Abadir Makeen had also worked in Sirte, but came home when Islamists started to control it and target Christians. He had telephoned the owner of the complex where the Copts lived in Sirte and was told that masked gunmen, thought to be from the Fagr Libya Group, IS or Ansar al-Sharia had kidnapped his brother and other Copts in an attack that no one had been able to stop.
Sitting sadly were the members of the family of Hani Abdel-Massih, 35: his mother, his wife and his children Marina, 12, Rifqa, 10, Viola, 6, and Pachomeous, 4. “My husband called us on New Year Eve at 8pm and said he was all right, but he couldn’t go out of the house because there were militants killing Egyptians in the street, and he and his friends were trying hard to find a way to return to Egypt,” his wife told us.

Meeting with the Pope
Pope Tawadros II met the families of the kidnapped Copts and spent time reassuring and praying with them. “The government is doing its best to find and bring back the kidnapped Copts and the Church is praying for the good Lord to protect them,” he told the despondent, fearful families.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sameh Shukry, delegated Ambassador Badr Abdel-Ati, the ministry spokesman, and Muhammad Abu-Bakr, Egypt’s Ambassador to Libya, to meet the families of the kidnapped Copts. Mr Abdel-Ati said the government and all its departments were following the events closely, and were doing their best despite the limited options and complicated conditions to reach a favourable conclusion to the crisis as soon as possible. He added that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had ordered the formation of a crisis committee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that would include representatives from all related ministries and authorities to liaise on the issue with the Libyan side.


Attempts at communication
The Libyan Ambassador to Egypt, Fayez Gebriel, said there was a joint operations room with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs formed especially for the problem of the kidnapped Copts in Sirte. Attempts were being made to find a way to communicate with the kidnappers.
He added that Sirte was not under the control of the Libyan government. However, the Libyan authorities were trying to contact tribal leaders who might be able to mediate in the matter.
Mr Gebriel said the problem with Egyptian labourers was that they did not travel alone but with members of their extended families, brothers and first and second cousins, all of whom live together, meaning that the gunmen could easily locate them. He expressed anxiety about the other Copts and Egyptians living in Sirte, but added that there were no concerns about the Egyptians working in Libya as agricultural labourers because they were protected by the tribal families who hired them. However he warned against going to areas that were not under the control of the Libyan government, saying he did not overrule an international military interference in Libya in the case of further upheaval.

Watani International
14 January 2015


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