Is there no end in sight for the suffering of Copts in Egypt?
Once the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime was brought down last July by massive public will and military backing, Copts looked forward to mellower times and a better future.
True, this did materialise in a general attitude of goodwill and a climate of rights and freedom but, specifically in Upper Egypt villages, Copts have continued to live through daily terror at the hands of local outlaws who are almost never caught by the police. This gave rise to suspicions that Islamists have infiltrated the police force in Upper Egypt. Supporting these doubts was the fact that when the police occasionally moved to catch the outlaws they ran to the nearby eastern mountains where they hid in the numerous caves which they know as the back of their hands, meaning they were tipped off to the planned police raid. Until last week the police could not catch any of them, even though they are known by name and run free to commit all their crimes against Copts.
First murderer caught
In the Upper Egyptian province of Assiut, it took some six months of intensive criminal activity against Copts and repeated Coptic complaints to top officials and human rights organisations in Cairo for the Interior Minister to move the police chief of Assiut, the intelligence director, and the police superintendent of the village of Sahel Selim. Earlier this month, General Tareq Nasr Hassanein was appointed as the new Security Chief. Directly, the police waged an offensive against the outlaws in Shamiya, and even though they had already fled the village to the eastern mountains once they knew that new officials had taken office, the police bulldozed and demolished the houses the outlaws used to spearhead their criminal activity.
The police kept a strong presence in the village, so the outlaws remained in their cave garrison. Only one threat was made by phone to kidnap a wealthy Copt’s son, but that Copt quickly took his whole family out of the village for fear for their safety. Last Tuesday, however, the outlaws made a comeback into the village in the aftermath of a police withdrawal. It turned out the withdrawal was tactical; the police rushed back into the village and caught four of the outlaws, among them Khaled Gamal Fawzy who was convicted of the murder of two Copts but had been in hiding.
Watani paid a visit to the towns and villages of Assiut which are notorious for crime against Copts.
Outlaws on the run
Last August, after the dispersal of the Islamist sit-ins of Rabaa and Nahda by the police; armed outlaw groups set about blackmailing Copts, imposing tributes on them and kidnapping them.
It began with two cousins from the village of Shamiya, Assiut, who refused to succumb to the blackmail and paid for this with their lives. The agriculturalist Emad Lutfi Demian, 52, and his cousin Medhat Sidqy Demian, 37, were contacted last September by a notorious outlaw and gunrunner in the area, who demanded EGP10,000. When the Demains refused to pay they were killed in cold blood, shot in their home by the outlaws. The Copts demonstrated in front of the Sahel Selim police station and demanded that the law be applied and the criminals arrested. The criminals were officially accused of murder, notably Khaled Gamal Fawzy and Ashraf Ahmed Muhammad, known as Ashraf Khalaq, who had already been handed death sentence in absentia in 2011 and had been on the run ever since. Although the murder of the Demians took place some five months ago, the case has to date not been referred to court.
Copts under siege
Watani paid a recent visit to Shamiya. The Coptic quarter was more like a ghost town; no one was on the streets, the Copts keep to their homes, afraid to speak to the media. They only opened up when we assured them their names would be kept anonymous. They said they feared for the lives of their children.
We managed to use a ruse to sneak into the Demian home. A family member told us: “We have been almost imprisoned in our house for a week. The outlaws are demanding EGP10,000, or else our children ‘would not leave the house alive’. When the outlaws get wind of someone who would bring us food or any other thing we need, they chase him off. It’s as though we’re under house arrest.
“Our neighbours F.N and E.M are in the same boat. They have been under siege in their homes, together with their families for over two weeks. Others succumbed and paid up to save themselves and their children.”
Demian bitterly said that, while they were prisoners in their own homes, the armed outlaws walked about freely and the police looked on. “When we report the matter to the police, we’re told to ‘reach an agreement with them [the outlaws]’. A few weeks ago two were kidnapped and freed after they paid ransom. S.F paid EGP10,000 and A.S.H paid EGP50,000. Before that, two other Shamiya Copts, A.S and B.R, had paid EGP10,000 each to the outlaws.
Some Copts pay ransom for their children; in other cases thay have to pay up for their livestock. G.A paid EGP50,000 to ransom his kidnapped son, for EGP20,000 his livestock and; he did not file an official report because he was afraid of being killed like Emad Lutfy.
A pick-up truck loaded with poultry belonging to S.F. was stolen, and he had to pay EGP40,000 to get it back.
However, when H.G.S was asked to pay tribute EGP30,000 he refused and filed an official report with the police. This had a terrible aftermath for H.G.S, who owns a piece of land opposite the police station at Sahel Selim. His son was kidnapped and he had to sell his land to pay ransom of some EGP450,000 after sending his wife and children into hiding. He says that an officer told him that if the police went to the village to arrest the criminals they would escape and then return after the police left, so it was better for him to negotiate. He was forced to sell his land for EGP600,000 to pay the ransom, but he sent petition to the Security Director of the governorate and the Ministry of Interior.
Copts in Beni Udayat in Manfalout, Assiut, are suffering just as badly as their counterparts in other Upper Egyptian villages; tributes and ransoms are imposed on them for their families, but they cannot make police reports for fear of putting themselves and their children in danger. In Beni Udayat, the outlaws exploit the relative wealth of Copts to demand as much money as they can.
The Copts in Beni Udayat make up some 20 per cent of the total population. They have long suffered from the absence of the security apparatus, paying protection money so their sons are not kidnapped and receiving threats that their daughters will be abducted and raped. The outlaws seized a piece land intended as a grave and owned by E.S; they asked for EGP500,000. Youssef Farag was kidnapped and killed while returning from work in his car, even though his family had paid the ransom. R.Y is another victim: his family paid EGP100,000 for the release of his kidnapped son. On 17 August 2013 M.H, aged 20, returned to his family after paying EGP250,000, yet although an official report was filed, no one took any action. S.Y was kidnapped on 21 September 2013 and his family paid EGP100,000. A child, N.M, was kidnapped on 26 September 2013 in front of his school; he returned to his family after they paid EGP150,000. The same applied to M.F, 22 years, whose family paid EGP60,000. Some of the kidnapped victims were tortured.
The problem takes on tragic proportions when the families cannot afford the ransom. A child, Abanoub Aziz, was killed and thrown into a canal when his family was unable to pay. There were clear signs of torture on the boy’s body.
Mohsen Arsent from Saraqna village and his son-in-law; Shuhdy Eliya Boulos, 64, from Saraqna village; Nazir Masry, 55, and his son Hany Nazir from Beni Muhammad al-Shehabeya village; Yacoub Gad al-Sayed, 25, from Habalsa, Qouseya; and Farouq Henary Attallah from Dairut were all killed by the outlaws.
Waheed Moneim al-Kidwany, 35, from al-Qouseya was kidnapped and killed because his family could not pay the requested ransom of EGP1,000,000. His dead body was found in a sack, thrown in the street.
Church building attacked
In the village of Berba in Sadfa, Assiut, where about 12,000 out of the total population of 45,000 are Copts, the outlaws have not only imposed tributes on the Copts but have also attacked a building under construction belonging to the Church when the Church refused to pay up. “The ground floor was built, but after building the base of the first floor we received a phone call from the outlaws of the Dabaya family who demanded EGP100,000 to let us continue building,” Father Philemon Abdallah Mishreqi of Mar-Girgis (St George) church said. “We live in a poor village; we have been collecting donations for a long time to build the community centre and we can’t afford to pay such a sum. When we refused the thugs attacked the labourers, beat them up and demolished the first floor, but they weren’t able to demolish the columns. In the official report we accused all the members of the Dabaya family, especially someone called Yehia Zakariya. The problem now is that the labourers are refusing to continue working, and the thugs have imposed tributes on some Coptic families and forced others to leave the village because of continuous death threats against their children. This happened to the family of N.D who had to leave his home which was then seized by the outlaws.”
16 February 2014