In Watani International, we have an extensive archive based on, among other things, topic. The ‘Sectarian’ topic, as all others, is arranged chronologically—a fact which gives a clear indication of how intense and how frequent violence against Copts takes place. There are peaceful periods when this archive is filled sporadically, but there are others when the archive gets shockingly full; it appears to be racing against time to include a stream of incidents of violence and injustice against Copts, with no end in sight. The time since 24 May 2016 has represented one of these sorry periods and has left Copts with a sense of deep pain and bitterness.
The past two months have seen successive attacks against Copts for reasons that ranged from suspicion of building a church, a romance between a Coptic man and Muslim woman or, as in the most recent case, a dispute in which the Copts demanded that they be treated with dignity. In all cases, no culprits were brought to justice; on the contrary, Copts were—and still are—pressured, threatened, and coerced into ‘conciliating’ with their attackers in out-of-court settlements sponsored by the village elders who are more often than not Muslim, and the local politicians and security officials. Such conciliations oblige the Coptic victims to give up their legal rights and accept the oppressive terms of ‘conciliation’ forced upon them.
Stripping an old woman
Last May, the village of al-Karm in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, reverberated with a baseless rumour of a relation between a Coptic man, Ashraf Attiya, 31, and a Muslim woman. Even though a Muslim man may, according to sharia, marry a Christian woman, a Christian man may not liaise with a Muslim woman. Attiya, fearing for his safety and that of his wife and four daughters, reported to the police that he had received threats then took his family and fled the village. His old parents remained behind, however. On the evening of 24 May an armed mob of 300 men broke into the houses of seven Coptic [extended] families, looted their belongings and set a number of them on fire. They dragged Attiya’s 68-year-old mother, Suad Thabet, into the street, stripped her naked and defamed and beat her before a large crowd. Even though the police had been informed beforehand of threats against the Attiyas, they did nothing to protect them and arrived at the scene of the attack two hours after the violence raged.
Anba Macarius, Bishop-General of Minya, issued a statement that detailed the incident and declared: “We are confident that such behaviour cannot be condoned by any honourable citizen. We trust the State apparatuses will not just look on. We thank in advance the security apparatuses, and are confident they will spare no effort to catch all those involved [in the attack] and hold them accountable.
The incident raised widespread anger and condemnation. Pope Tawadros called Ms Thabet, comforted her and prayed for her, but insisted that the rule of law should prevail. President Sisi instructed all relevant State apparatuses to see to it that justice is served, and that Minya governor should work with the Armed Force to repair the damages.
Livelihoods and lives threatened
Today, the damages have been repaired, but the eight suspects caught have been released on bail and, according to Ms Thabet’s lawyer Ihab Ramzy, the investigations are stalling and his client is being pressured by the village Muslims, local politicians and security officials to conciliate with the offenders and relinquish her legal rights.
The pressures have reached the point where the Copts in the village are threatened that if they do not manage to persuade Ms Thabet to conciliate with the offenders, the entire Muslim population of al-Karm will boycott them and their livelihoods will be lost. If the Copts succumb and Ms Thabet accepts conciliation, the President’s orders would have been effectively defeated. Ms Thabet is as yet adamant that there should be no ‘conciliation’, but is under threat that if she does not acquiesce the entire Coptic population of the village will be made to ‘pay the price’.
June began with a number of minor incidents against Copts. During the first week four Muslim men from the village of Damshir in Minya attacked with knives the 45-year-old Copt Nassef Ramzy, terrorised his family, attempted to break into his home and force him to leave the village. Mr Ramzy reported the attack to the police, saying it was on account of his having donated a piece of land he owned, on which he was erecting a building, to the Church. The police arrested the four Muslim men but halted construction in Mr Ramzy’s building and closed it down.
The second week in June saw Coptic holidaymakers in the coastal town of Matrouh west of Alexandria cast with eggs as they walked down the seafront road, the Corniche. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Holidaymaking was seen to go against the fast and, under the pretext of a Muslim fatwa that bans both Muslims and non-Muslims from revealing that they do not keep the fast in Ramadan, fanatic Muslims attacked the ‘non-fasting’ Copts by throwing eggs at them. The Copts reported the incident to the police who caught the culprits.A number of tribal elders in Matrouh offered to work a conciliation between the local egg throwers and the Copts, but the Copts rejected that offer and required that the law should be applied.
No to church
Friday 17 June saw the by-now notorious attack against the Copts of the village of al-Beida in Amriya, southwest Alexandria. [https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/amriya-copts-attacked-on-suspicion-of-prayer/16762/] The attack was on suspicion that the Coptic villagers intended to turn a Church-owned house that hosts a community centre into a church. The house had previously belonged to the two Coptic brothers Naeem and Moussa Aziz, but they had sold it to the Church and temporarily resided with their families on the ground floor until a new house they were building was completed and they could move out. The village is home to some 1800 Copts and includes no church.
The 17 June attack left two Copts injured, Coptic homes plundered and damaged, and the Aziz families forced out of their homes under the pretext of security. A number of MPs mediated with top State officials a return of the evicted Copts to their homes, but Amriya police charged the Copts with rioting, and ordered their arrest.
The Copts realised they were being coerced into ‘conciliating’ with the Muslim attackers; according to Naeem Aziz it was: “either we ‘conciliate’ and in the process give up all our rights, or we are caught and prosecuted. We have been attacked, our homes plundered and burned, the community centre we used for worship and social services has been closed, two families have been evicted of their homes, and two men injured. Yet we are now wanted for ‘rioting’. Instead of protecting us, the police have put victim and offender on the same footing, and now we are required to give up our legal rights and reconcile with those who attacked us. All this while the offenders run free. And they call this justice? What justice?” Yet until then the Copts stood their ground and refused to conciliate.
On 5 July, the eve of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan, a large delegation of village Muslims visited the Azizes and insisted upon conciliation “for the sake of peace in the village, especially given that it was Eid so a good time for ‘forgiveness’”. “There was no way we could say ‘no’,” Naeem Aziz said, “especially that we were threatened with police arrest.” In the evening a conference was held by the politicians and security authorities of Amriya to announce the conciliation.
The village Muslims made a formal apology to the wronged Copts and offered to pay compensation, but the Copts—as is the rural tradition—refused the money offered. Both parties signed papers giving up their legal rights. The community centre on the top floor of which the Copts held prayers remains closed, however, under the pretext of security reasons.
Again, attacked on suspicion
Even as the Amriya case raged on, another similar incident took place in the Minya village of Koum al-Loufi, Samalout. For the second time in three weeks, Copts were attacked on suspicion of building a church.
Two Copts, Ashraf Khalaf and his brother Ibrahim Khalaf, were in the process of building new homes for their families when a rumour spread that one of these houses would be turned into a church. Even though the police made the Khalafs sign pledges that the houses would be used for residence and not for practising religious rites, a fanatic Muslim mob waged an attack against the Copts in the village during the late hours of Wednesday 29 June. To cries of Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest) they set fire to four Coptic-owned houses, among them the two owned by the Khalafs. The Muslim mob blocked the way before the fire fighting truck which was attempting to enter the village, and clashed with the police. Ibrahim Khalaf said that the mob beat their children. “We rescued the children from the hands of the fanatics as they continued to scream Allahu Akbar,” he said. Ashraf Khalaf’s family was turned out of their home. The police arrested 19 offenders. The government compensated the Copts for their losses, to the tune of EGP40,000 in all, but the Copts said the sum was laughable given their losses.
Anba Pavnotius, Bishop of Samalout, said that the village of Koum al-Loufi is home to some 1800 Copts and includes no church. Ten years ago, he said, an application was filed with the relevant authorities for licence to build a church there, but no licence has as yet been given. He insisted on Coptic demands that reject conciliation with the offenders, and that require application of the law.
Now the Copts of Koum al-Loufi are being threatened that if the Khalafs do not accept conciliation with those who burned their houses the entire Coptic population in the village will be attacked, even the children. Many Copts, fearing for the safety of their families, have already left the village. A third Khalaf brother, Ayoub Khalaf was beaten up by fanatic Muslim villagers, under threat that “more of this [beating] will come to every Copt if no conciliation is held”. Ashraf Khalaf told Watani that five of their families are crammed inside a garage owned by one of their relatives who allowed them to use it as a temporary home. “But we are almost under house arrest,” he said, “we can’t go out because of all the threats. We definitely refuse conciliation, but how long can we hold out? Especially given that there is also pressure on us from our local MP and Beit al-Aila to accept conciliation? And how long will it take for justice to be served?” Beit al-Aila is a State-sponsored council formed of representatives of al-Azhar and the Church, as well as a number of Muslim and Coptic laity whose prime purpose is to abort sectarian violence. The council, however, has done nothing of the sort and has instead, led by al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, attempted to cover up sectarian violence through the so-called conciliation sessions.
The first week of July brought heartache to the Copts. Even before the month began, on 30 June, a Coptic Orthodox priest was shot to death by Islamists in the northern Sinai town of al-Arish. Father Raphail Moussa, 46, pastor of the church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Arish, had held Holy Mass at his church and was on his way home when he was shot by three men in a taxi driving by. Four shots in the head directly put an end to his life. The Daesh-affiliated news agency Amaq declared that IS claimed responsibility for his assassination “due to him waging a war against Islam”.
Fr Raphail was ordained in March 2012 together with Fr Mina Aboud Sharubim who was also shot to death by Islamist militants in Arish in July 2013. He leaves behind a wife and two children. His funeral was held in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya, his birthplace. A number of bishops, among them Anba Seraphim of Ismailiya officiated at the funeral ceremony. Anba Qozman, Bishop of North Sinai, was outside Egypt.
On 2 July, 15-year-old Lucia who is the daughter of Father Angaelos Murad, a priest in the southern province of Sohag, was stabbed in the neck by an unknown man as she crossed the street in front of Sohag bishopric. Eyewitnesses told Watani that the assailant grabbed the girl by her hair and pulled her head back in what appeared to be an attempt to cut her throat. Young men who were then present at the bishopric church of Mar-Girgis (St George) rushed to the rescue of the girl and were able to save her from her assailant, but he had already stabbed her between the neck and shoulder. She was swiftly moved to the nearby al-Hilal Hospital, where the wound was stitched. The young Copts caught the assailant and handed him over to the police. He was Muhammad T. E, 44-years old and an employee with the Finance Ministry. His family submitted to the prosecution a portfolio of documents which prove he suffers mental illness. The prosecution ordered him to be placed in the State mental health hospital in Abassiya where he would be monitored and an independent updated report issued regarding his condition.
Anba Bakhoum, Bishop of Sohag hastened to visit Lucia in hospital, as did Governor of Sohag, Ayman Abdel-Moniem who a few days later honoured her for her courage, together with the young Copt Fady Fouquet who had come to her rescue.
The Lucia incident was not strictly sectarian in nature, but brought shock and pain all the same. Many Copts posted on social media the question: “Why do mental patients so often direct their ‘imbalance’ against Copts? Possibly because of the widespread culture of hate?” They were referring to a number of previous incidents where attackers of Copts were pronounced mentally unstable.
Nun shot dead
Just three days after the Lucia incident, a Coptic nun from the convent of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Masr al-Qadeema (Old Cairo) was shot dead. Again, it was an accident not a sectarian incident, and againthe Copts–who greatly revere nuns and monks–felt pained. Sister Athnasia lost her life while in a car driving on the Cairo Alexandria Desert Road to Mar-Girgis monastery in al-Khatatba. She was riding with two other nuns, a female doctor, and the driver when at 58km from Cairo their vehicle got caught in a drive-by shooting that targeted another car on the road. Sister Athnasis lost her life on the spot after she was hit by a barrage of bullets. The other passengers and the driver were safe.
The target of the shooting was businessman Abdel-Halim Hemeida who was also a local politician. He was driving home from the airport after arriving from pilgrimage to Mecca; his son Hamza, 22, was driving. The attackers waited for them to drive by and shot at them with automatic weapons. Hamza was injured in the leg and foot, but was moved to hospital and underwent surgery. The attackers belonged to a Bedouin family that was in dispute with Hemeida family over a piece of land in the vicinity of Wadi al-Natroun. A Bedouin had been killed in the dispute and his family had vowed a vendetta. A week later the police caught the three killers.
In a replay of the violence against Copts in Kom al-Loufi and Amriya, the Copts of the village of Abu-Yacoub in Minya were attacked on 15 July on a rumour that they were converting a pre-school nursery into a church. Five Coptic homes belonging to Estimalek Youssef Estimalek, Yuhanna Youssef Estimalek, Abdel-Malak Saleeb, Ibrahim Khalil, and Waheed Wadie Farag were destroyed and set on fire.
The local Copts say the rumour is totally baseless since the village already has a church, the church of Mar-Mina al-Agaibi. Eyewitnesses told Watani that the houses in Abu-Yacoub al-Qibliya (South Abu-Yacoub) were looted and set ablaze till they burned completely, at the hands of a 1000-strong mob shouting Allahu Akbar. Most of the mobbing men, the witnesses said, came from Abu-Yacoub al-Bahriya (North Abu-Yacoub); their leader was a man that goes by the name Ashraf Sayed Elwan, and works as a chauffeur to a police officer.
The Copts complained that the police confiscated mobile phones from those who were suspected of having captured shots or video footage of the mobbing and fires. The police surrounded the burnt houses and forbade their owners from going in.
The Bishopric of Minya and Abu-Qurqas issued a statement in which it said that: “The bishopric demands again, and will continue to do so without fail or despair, that the offenders should be taken to account. Every time offenders are not brought to justice others are emboldened to commit more criminal acts in the assurance that they will be guarded and defended in flagrant challenge to the entire community … There is no State authority that we have not approached with accounts of our suffering. We still demand that the law should be applied.”
Fire at St Michael’s
The early hours of Saturday 16 July saw a huge fire erupt in the church of the Archangel Mikhail in the village of Naj al-Nassara in Madamoud, east of Luxor. The police and firemen arrived at the scene around 5am, but the villagers had already joined forces and put out the fire which had devoured the interior of the church. The firemen made sure the fire was entirely put out and cooled down the embers. Investigations into the cause of the fire are ongoing.
The Bila Hudoud (Without Restrictions) human rights centre in Luxor issued a report on the incident. The report revealed that the villagers of Naj al-Nassara woke up at 2:30am on Saturday to cries of help because of a fire that had erupted in the church of the Archangel Mikhail. The fire was raging on, and an icon painter, Yasser Moussa, who was doing work in the church and resided on the top floor of the church building was caught in his room by the fire. He was screaming for help and attempting to jump down, but the villagers brought ladders and took him down safely. “We opened the doors of the church,” an eyewitness said, “and found that the fire had eaten up everything inside: the wooden sanctuary, the iconostasis, the pews, the books, the chandeliers, the cupboards, the fans, a projector and screen…everything. We heard deafening sounds of explosions and crackling as the interior of the church gave way.
“The firemen finally arrived at 5am, but the villagers had used makeshift water hoses and put out the fire.”
The report cites the history of the church which serves some 520 [extended] Coptic families in Madamoud and the villages and hamlets in its vicinity. The church had stood for long decades as a mud brick building till 1980 when the villagers gathered donations and, over several years, rebuilt it as a modern concrete building. “The church was built in several stages, since it was financed through the hard-earned savings of the poverty stricken villagers,” the report says. “Since it was rebuilt in 1980, Luxor Bishopric has been demanding that it should be licensed, but no licence has as yet been granted to legalise the de facto church. Yet the villagers were very happy to have a place to worship in; they brought their children to be baptised there, and held their weddings and funeral services there.”
Safwat Samaan, director of Bila Hudoud, says that upon visiting Naj al-Nassara he was struck by the grief that engulfed the villagers; men and women shed tears, mourning their hard earned church. No one could figure out any plausible cause for the fire, saying that no candles were ever left burning and that the electric circuit breakers were intact so it could not have been an electric short circuit.
Mr Samaan brought up the question of whether the fire could have been an act of arson. “On 20 April 2016,” he said, “a fire erupted in the same way and at the same time, around 3am, in the Coptic Catholic church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Luxor. The parallels are uncanny. It is now up to the criminal investigation authorities and the prosecution to find the answers.
Official investigations are ongoing.
Praying under the embers
Saturday evening Anba Yusab, Bishop-General of Luxor visited the village, inspected the burnt church, and comforted the villagers. Luxor Governor Muhammad Badr arrived at the scene while Anba Yusab was there. They held a meeting together, but there was no official statement about the matter or any talk of compensation.
Faithful to the words of the Bible: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it [the Church]” (Matt 16: 18), Anba Yusab insisted on leading prayers and services at the church which had burned that morning. He raised incense for Vespers service on Saturday evening and, on the morning of Sunday 17 July, presided over Holy Mass. A large number of clergy took part, and attending were the monks of the nearby Mar-Girgis (St George) monastery in al-Ruzaiqat. The congregation of Naj al-Nassara filled the church. Anba Yusab gave a sermon on “The narrow way that leads to life” (Matt 7:14).
Killed in Tahna al-Gabal
Also on Sunday 17 July, a Coptic man was killed and three others injured in an attack against Copts in the Minya village of Tahna al-Gabal, Minya.
According to Anba Macarius, the [extended] family of two priests in the village of Tahna al-Gabal were victims of an attack with clubs and knives. Fam Mari Khalaf, 27, lost his life on account of a stab that penetrated his heart; two others were moved to the Good Shepherd Hospital in nearby Samalout suffering serious injuries.
Naguib Hanna, 80, father of the priest Fr Matta’os who is pastor of the church of Mar-Mina in Tahna al-Gabal, was stabbed several times in the face; and Malak Aziz Hanna, 40, brother-in-law of Fr Matta’os and brother of Fr Boutros who is another priest belonging to the same family, suffered from a stab in the right side. Azza Gomaa, 35, a female neighbour, suffered slight wounds in the face.
An argument had erupted between Mr Hanna and a number of Muslims who were driving by in a tricycle in front of his house and had verbally abused his 8-year-old grandson playing there. Eyewitnesses say that the grandfather reprimanded them and a number of Coptic neighbours joined in, which drove the tricycle riders who were carrying knives to fight with the Copts. The fight escalated to include scores of Muslim villagers; Mr Khalaf lost his life and three were injured.
Later in the evening, Anba Macarius visited the injured in the hospital. One had undergone surgery, and the other was in a stable condition.
Fr Matta’os did not accompany the bishop to check on his old father; he was attempting to calm a crowd of wrathful Coptic villagers who had gathered in front of his house wrathful at the constant failure of Minya police to defend them.
Copts are Egyptian
The funeral service for Mr Khalaf saw an outpouring of emotional pain and tears. A huge wooden cross was carried to lead the funeral procession as the women wailed and the men grieved. The mourners chanted slogans that pronounced their pride in their Christian faith for which they were being persecuted, and concluded with the short, repetitive plea: “Ya Rubb” (Oh God). According to an eyewitness, the cry “shook the ground”. Anba Macarius tearfully presided over the funeral service and tearfully delivered a sermon which focused on the untimely death of the deceased.
Earlier in the day, Anba Macarius had tweeted: “Just a reminder, Mr President: Copts are Egyptian, and Minya is an Egyptian governorate,”
On another front, Coptic MPs attempted during a House of Representatives session to discuss the recent attacks against the Copts but the House Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal denied them permission to do so. Instead, he issued a feeble statement expressing his sorrow at the death of the Copt in Minya, and extolling the historical unity of all Egyptians. He said he would listen to Minya MPs for the details of the incident, and see to it that the law is applied.
Coptic MP Nadia Henry issued a statement in which she called on President Sisi to intervene to put a stop to the constant violations against Copts in Minya. She demanded an end to the customary security laxity in dealing with attacks against the Copts, as well as to attempts to beautify matters through conciliation sessions pushed on by Beit al-Aila.
Fast and prayer
Coptic youth movements such as Shabab Christian (Christian Youth) and the Maspero Youth Union (MYU) issued statements denouncing State inaction in the face of the injustice inflicted upon Copts, and called on the authorities to bring the culprits to justice.
MYU demanded of Pope Tawadros II to declare a state of public fast in the Church and to hold special public prayers for the matter. The youth union also demanded that the Pope should halt all meetings with State officials, in a move that should signal discontent and protest. It also advised the formation of a committee of 10 members from among the Coptic laity, youth and Melli (Community) Council, to meet with the State officials and attempt to bring back Coptic rights. The statement demanded of the State to swiftly compensate the Coptic victims as the Egyptian citizens that they are, and to reject the practice of conciliation sessions. It called on Copts to boycott Beit al-Aila and on Pope Tawadros to revoke the Church’s membership in “this council which has become an instrument for the oppression of Copts”. Finally, MYU demanded that the law should be applied, the culprits brought to justice, and the balancing act of accusing Copts of false charges so as to force them into conciliation should be stopped.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) expressed its deep concern over the recent escalation in sectarian violence in Minya. EIPR said that Minya had been the scene of 77 incidents of sectarian violence during the last five years; the figure, it said, did not include the notorious nationwide Muslim Brotherhood attack against the Copts on 14 August 2013.
EIPR’s Ishaq Ibrahim said that the State attitude which considers sectarian violence a security problem and which disregards its causes, symptoms, or solutions only serves to augment the problem. Even on the security level, Mr Ibrahim said, the entire matter is discounted in an unjust ‘conciliation’ that further oppresses the Copts and reproduces the tense sectarian climate that bred the original incident. The environment becomes a hotbed for sectarianism, collective punishment of Copts, and the conviction that a sector of Egyptians possesses the right to determine the destiny of another sector of Egyptians as far as their right to practise their religious rites is concerned.
The law should be applied, EIPR stressed, and all State apparatuses should be given clear orders to bring to justice the culprits in criminal incidents, as well as those who incite hatred and promote sectarian violence.
Finally, EIPR demanded that the status of churches and related buildings where religious rites are practised should be legalised. Also that the upcoming bill for building churches should be offered for societal dialogue to allow religious institutions and civil society organisations to engage in discussions over it so that it would come up with just rules that fulfil the needs of Egyptians.
Reporting by: Nader Shukry, Adel Mounir, Nour Seifein, Nevine Kameel, Nevine Gadallah
20 July 2016