“Because we’re Christian”
“I lost all sleep last night,” a frantic young Coptic woman called Watani to say. “How could have it been possible to sleep when I knew the Copts in the Minya village of Beni-Ahmed were being forced to snatch their children out of bed and flee their homes for their safety
“I lost all sleep last night,” a frantic young Coptic woman called Watani to say. “How could have it been possible to sleep when I knew the Copts in the Minya village of Beni-Ahmed were being forced to snatch their children out of bed and flee their homes for their safety. Then they had to watch their homes, shops, and vehicles plundered and set ablaze before their eyes. And why? They had committed not a single wrong-doing. Is there nothing we can do for these defenceless people?”
That young woman, who wished to remain unnamed, summed it all up. The Beni-Ahmed Copts were under attack for the second time in a couple of days, for no reason other than that they are Copts.
The 4000-strong Islamist mob
The attack had begun on the evening of Saturday 3 August in the wake of a fight between two men in a coffee shop when one of them, an Islamist, browsed off a TV channel which was airing a song that praised the Egyptian army. The argument which ensued between two Islamist Mursi supporters, Islam Bakr and Sherif Abdel-Moneim Radi, on one hand and coffee shop owner Hanna Doss Fahmy and the anti-Mursi non-Islamists at the coffee shop on the other, escalated into a fight which quickly gathered sectarian overtones. Since it is no secret that Copts are against Islamist rule, and given that the coffee shop owner is a Copt, the Islamists left but returned later with a mob of some 4000 from nearby villages. They attacked the coffee shop and left it in ruins, then went on a rampage against the Copts in the village. They attacked with stones, clubs and sticks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire. Some Copts retaliated with stones and Molotovs, but most kept to their homes in terror, and called the police. Dozens of young Copts rushed to the village church of the Holy Virgin to defend it against any possible break-in by the Islamists.
Rumour of mosque burned
The police arrived at 10pm, two hours after the Copts had called and after they had to contact top officials in Minya and Cairo asking for protection, but was not able to enter the village till 11:30pm. They used tear gas to disperse the mob, and surrounded the village.
Fifteen persons were injured, among them a police officer and three army recruits. Seven houses were burnt, five cars damaged, and a coffee shop, two shops and a pharmacy were ruined; all owned by Copts.
Four mobsters were caught.
The police confronted a mob from the neighbouring village of Beni-Ahmed al-Gharbiya and stopped them from accessing Beni-Ahmed al-Sharqiya to join the Islamists mobbing there. The Islamsits, however, circulated a rumour in several other villages in the vicinity to the effect that the Copts in Beni-Ahmed al-Sharqiya had burnt a mosque there. In the village of Reeda, the Muslim villagers attacked the Protestant church and ruined its façade and windows, but failed to break into it. They pelted the houses of Copts with stones, and terrorised the Copts by firing shots in the air.
Sunday passed in cautious calm, apart from attempts by the Islamists to forbid the Copts from accessing their churches for Sunday Mass and prayer services. The Minya bishopric issued a statement in which it detailed the attack against the Copts and criticised what if described as the security failure in defending them.
Come Monday evening, however, the Islamists opened fire on the Copts in Beni-Ahmed al-Sharqiya despite security presence. They again came by the thousands from the nearby villages, and again upon a rumour that the Copts had burned a mosque. To Islamic slogans of Islamiya, Islamiya (Islamic, we want it Islamic) and shouts of Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest), they waged their attacks against the Copts in their homes, using Molotovs and gunfire.
Seven Coptic-owned homes, 24 shops, and nine vehicles were destroyed and burned.
According to eyewitnesses, the police patrols stationed in front of the village church did not move to stop the attack which, according to the Coptic villagers, started from the close-by Abadiya and the Beni-Muhammad villages. Islamist assailants attempted to break into the home of the Copt Ayman Farag, which is situated at the eastern end of the village. Farag retaliated by pelting them with stones, in an effort to keep them at bay. Later, the security forces came to his rescue, and the mobsters fled.
Hiding in the fields
But another Copt, Ishaq Gaballah was not so lucky. The Islamist mobsters fired at him in his home then broke in, plundered the three-storey house and blacksmith workshop which lies on the ground floor, and set them both on fire. The police caught Gaballah and detained him on allegations that he fired at the mobsters, even though no firearms were found with him or in [what was left of] his home. In detention at the police station, Gaballah broke into tears. “Who in the world can sanction this? Some 20 men come shooting at me and throwing fireballs at my house while I sat with my wife and children having supper. I rushed them out and let them hide in the nearby fields while I could see the mobsters steal my belongings and set my house aflame. Then I find myself detained while my attackers run free! I can only raise my cry to God.”
With Gaballah in detention was the coffee shop owner Fahmy.
Up in flames
Other Copts had similar stories to tell.
M.Y, whose home lies at the outskirts of Beni-Ahmed and owns a shop that sells electric utilities, recalls that on that fateful evening the family was at home when they heard a commotion outside. “We discovered that vehicles carrying bearded men who were shouting Islamic slogans came from outside the village. Since Beni-Ahmed is populated by a majority of Copts, we realised that if Islamists wished to attack them they should get people from outside the village, which is exactly what happened.
“We tried to fortify our gate and doors by piling up wooden pieces behind them. The mob broke into the shop, looted it and set it on fire, then started ramming our gate. We are three families—an extended family—in the house; we snatched our children and rushed with our women outside through a back door. Just as the young ones and the women had left, the mob came it and shot at us. My brother and I were both injured, but we managed to flee. From outside, we saw our house go up in flames.”
“The children are terrorised,” M.Y’s wife said, shaking with fear and anger. “If they happen to fall asleep they have nightmares. The keep on crying and asking why all that happened. We’re at a loss how to answer; do we tell them it’s because we’re Christian?”
In view of the flagrant security failure to protect the village’s Copts and their property, Beni-Ahmed Copts have formed neighbourhood squads to defend themselves. A number of them and their families with dire consequences should they give away to the police the names of their assailants.
A meeting is expected later today between Anba Macarius, Bishop General of Minya and the village’s Copts who were affected by the violence which has been going on since Saturday in order to determine how they can be compensated for their lost, burnt or damaged property.
The Maspero Youth Union, an association of Coptic youth, issued a statement in which it condemned the attacks against Copts that have been going on non-stop since the Islamist regime of the ousted president Muhammad Mursi was overthrown on 3 July. The statement criticised the security failure in the face of these attacks, and insisted the Copts are being made to pay for being among the revolutionist who led to the overthrow of the regime. It listed a horrendous list which included the death of four Copts, the burning of some 60 houses and even more shops and vehicles in the villages of Dalaga and Badraman in Minya, and in Dabiya in Luxor. The Copts in Rahaf and Arish were forced to leave town, Fr Mina Aboud of Arish was shot dead and the Copt Magdy Lamei was beheaded in Rafah. Churches in Marsa Matrouh, Port Said, Minya and other places in Egypt came under attack. In Sohag, Upper Egypt, there were attempts to fly the black flags of al-Qaeda over churches. The statement demanded the protection of Copts and the enforcement of the law.
Monday evening saw a vigil held by Copts in front of the High Court of justice in Cairo. The men and women held banners that warned against the passage of an Islamsit constitution, denounced the incitement against Copts by the Islamists at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque where those calling for the reinstatement of Mursi are gathered, and called upon those in authority in Egypt and the world to heed and rectify what was happening to the Copts.
Reported by Tereza Hanna, Nader Shukry, Robeir al-Faris, Michael Victor, Lillian Nabil, Nasser Sobhy
6 August 2013