Recent events in the village of Kafr Darwish in al-Fashn, Beni Sweif some 100km south of Cairo, have raised the concerns of rights and Coptic groups, generating a general sense of severe anxiety. The expulsion of Coptic families through a decision taken by local clerics and village elders in urfi, literally traditional, non-official sessions sponsored by the local security authorities raised the secular community in Egypt.
The first sign of trouble came on Sunday 24 May, when a number of radical Muslim youths attacked the homes of the Copts in Kafr Darwish hurling at them stones and petrol bombs, and torching 11 houses. A car owned by one Copt, Malak Youaqim Ayad, was smashed.
The attack was said to be on account of the alleged insult of Islam by a Coptic villager, Ayman Youssef. It was rumoured that Mr Youssef, who comes from Kafr Darwish but is currently working in Jordan, posted on his Facebook page cartoons offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. Mr Youssef’s family have denied the claim, insisting that someone created a Facebook page in his name without his knowledge.
A number of urfi ‘reconciliation sessions’ were held to contain the violence and bring about calm. They began with a demand that the Youssef [extended] family pay a sum of money as a fine for their son’s ‘disdain of Islam’ but ended, with the approval of the security officials, with the eviction of the Coptic families. The media, especially the Coptic media, went up in arms against the sidelining of the law and the implementation of a parallel, unjust judicial system. The uproar led Beni Sweif Governor Ahmed Selim to move to bring home the evicted families. He did that, however, through non-official methods such as the intervention of Beit al-Aila—a State-sponsored body that includes Muslim and Coptic clergy and laity and that is assigned with dissipating and containing sectarian conflict—and the organisation of another conciliation session that allowed the families to go back.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) was among the rights groups which closely followed the events in Kafr Darwish.
“Allowing the expelled families to return home through another urfi session is an incomplete solution to the problem,” the EIPR said in its report. “Sectarian conflict cannot be resolved as long as the State insists on dealing with the violations and attacks against citizens outside the fair application of the law.
The eviction of the Copts of Kafr Darwish, according to Ishaq Ibrahim of the EIPR’s programme of freedom of religion and belief, was not the first of its kind in the past few months. In April and May this year, urfi sessions in the Upper Egypt villages of al-Nassirya in Minya, and Mayana in Beni-Sweif ended with Copts being forced to leave their homes just because Muslims did not like the opinion some Copt posted on Facebook.
The EIPR report criticises the officially-sponsored urfi sessions, describing them as some parallel judiciary that lacks the minimum requirements for fair trial and knows nothing about non-discrimination. It imposes various kinds of collective punishment, including the forced displacement of entire extended families even though some of their members were neither involved in the offence nor sympathetic to the offender.
“In the long run,” the report notes, “the displacement of Copts will create a geographic division based on religious identity, which would in turn increase sectarian conflict and undermine social unity.”
Article 63 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that, “banning, putting pressure on and unfair displacement of citizens” is “a crime that does not lapse by prescription.” The recent urfi sessions in Kafr Darwish violated the law and displaced the Copts by force, under threat.
“Those responsible for the displacement of the Kafr Darwish Copts should be questioned for allowing the attack against the Copts and should be prosecuted for violating the law,” the report recommended.
The EIPR demands a basic change when dealing with the question of sectarian attacks and says there should not be a reliance on solutions by security apparatuses, but rather the law should be applied with the aim of making up for the harm done to victims and guaranteeing it never happens again.
“Displacement is a harsh punishment,” Mr Ibrahim believes. “It leaves its impact on the displaced persons for a long time. They are forced to leave the homes where they have resided for decades and move to a new place. When they get there they have to build up for themselves a whole new life, not an easy task when you still suffer the pain of material loss and unjust social rejection.”
According to EIPR, sectarian conflict resolved through urfi sessions has escalated since the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. It peaked at 36 cases during the period of the Muslim Brothers (MB) rise to power from 2011 to June 2013, then dropped to nine cases since the overthrow of the MB in June 2013 till the end of 2014. These figures do not represent all the attacks against Copts during these four years; only those resolved through urfi sessions. The attacks against Copts during the period from January 2011 to June 2013 included 150 cases and left 116 dead and hundreds injured.
Geographically, Upper Egypt leads the list of attacks against Copts; Minya ranks first at 33.3 per cent, and Beni Sweif a distant second at 11 per cent. Researchers believe that the high Coptic population in these governorates contributes to the increasing hostility towards them, and strong tribal and clan loyalties make an individual dispute balloon rapidly to involve much wider portions of the community.
The pattern of the attack is almost the same in all cases. An argument or dispute escalates to involve more people on both sides, who have nothing to do with the original disagreement or offence but who are there to stand by their kin. Through mosque microphones, the Muslims rally other Muslims to “defend Islam against the Nassara (a derogatory term to denote Christians), and a plundering and torching spree begins to collectively punish the Copts for whatever the Muslims feel warrants punishment.
The mighty crushes the weak
Several reasons lead to sectarian conflict, major among them is the aversion of the Muslims to the building of a new church or restoration of an existing one. In such cases, an attack is waged against the church or church-to-be and the attack extends to all Coptic homes and businesses in the vicinity. Conciliation sessions have been known to decree the halting of the building of a new church or restoration of an existing one, moving the site of a new church to one much farther away, closing a renovated church or banning worship there, prohibiting the entry of any worshipper who come from outside the village, or even halting the building of a Coptic-owned house for fear that the owner might later use it as a church.
Another reason for sectarian conflict is the discovery of a romance between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman; Islam allows a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman but not vice versa. In a few cases violence erupted against Copts for reasons as trivial as a Copt paying a train ticket for his Muslim female neighbour or walking her home from the station.
In several cases, as in Kafr Darwish, the reason behind the attack against Copts is what some Muslims see as disdain of Islam.
To bring about peace after an attack, local officials find it easy to resort to ‘conciliation’sessions to supposedly heal the wound. But these sessions typically bring about calm by empowering the mightier side, the Muslims, to pass harsh sentences against the weaker side, the Copts who are moreover forced to waive away their legal rights. Through ‘conciliation’ sessions, Copts are denied the right to worship, entire extended families are banished, or the community is forced to pay hefty fines. In 95 per cent of the cases, the EIPR says, conciliation sessions contributed to an increase not a reduction in sectarian tension.
17 June 2015