Violence Against Copts
Sectarian Riots in Alexandria
Once again serious sectarian tension has broken out in Egypt, this time in the coastal city of Alexandria. It began in much the same way as previous Muslim-Christian disputes: with the publication of an inflammatory story in the Cairo tabloid newspaper Al-Midan of 6 & 13 October. This contained an article concerning a church play that it claimed defamed Islam. Another Cairo weekly, Al-Osbou picked up the theme and further fanned the sectarian flames. The play, which had been produced to combat terrorism not Islam, was about a poor Christian university student who converts to Islam after a group of Muslims offer him money to do so, was called “ I was blind but now I can see”. The twist in the plot comes when the convert later decides to return to Christianity and the same Muslims then threaten him with violence. In the Al-Midan article the journalist, Waleed Orabi, claimed that CDs featuring the performance were being distributed in the neighbourhood.
Trouble began the next day, following the post-sunset Muslim prayers on Friday 14 October, when a group of people entered the Awlad al-Sheikh mosque next door to the church in question in the Muharram Bek neighbourhood, and showed worshippers a copy of the paper. The mosque’s imam, who has for years been on very courteous terms with the neighbouring church, tried to calm the crowds, but to no avail.
An angry crowd of about 100 people promptly marched on Mari Guirgis (St. George) and Anba Antonious Church, shouting threatening slogans against Christians and the Church. As word spread, the crowd swelled to some 3,000 people. Some were there to support the demonstrators’ demands, while others were just curious. Local police were quickly deployed in their hundreds and had to fire in the air and use tear gas to disperse the mob, but by three in the morning they had dispersed the angry demonstrators.
Muharram Bey district was turned into what resembles military barracks. Even though the district is known as a centre of Islamism, eyewitnesses said the people who instigated the worshippers to demonstrate were from Cairo, not from the neighbourhood.
The violence spread to other churches. The Coptic Evangelical Church in Muharram Bey was also the target of thundering demonstrators following dawn prayers the following Monday. When they failed to break down the iron gate, demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at the church windows. In the evening, another demonstration took place in front of Maro Girgis church in al-Hadra district, but no acts of violence took place. Police forces hastened to protect Mari Girgis of Sporting and Anba Abraam of Zein al-Abideen churches.
The issue, however, was far from resolved. On Wednesday 19 October, the situation intensified. Another crowd of angry Muslims demonstrated in front of Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox church in the same area. They attacked a nun several times by a knife from the back and one piercing stab on her chest. Also they severed one of her fingers. She was rushed to the hospital where she underwent an emergency surgery. Her condition is said to be stable. Another man was also stabbed, but his condition is stable.According to Father Augustinous, the Saint George Church’s head pastor, a man in his early 20s stabbed the nun in the chest, seriously injuring her lungs. Another male Coptic worshipper was also injured in the attack, but suffered minor injuries. The attacker is currently in custody.
These two incidents were merely the prelude to the major violence that took place the following Friday, 21 October. The tense atmosphere was complicated when security forces deployed around the church and nearby mosque prevented thousands of worshippers from performing their Friday prayers. According to eyewitnesses speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, the police presence “added fuel to the fire.” In the angry crowd’s view, it was an attempt by the state to “protect the church that [allegedly] defamed Islam, to please the [Copts] at Islam’s expense.” Many of the worshippers ended up performing their prayers in the side streets around the church; afterwards, they gathered on both sides of the cordoned-off street and started shouting Islamic slogans like, “We would sacrifice our blood and souls for Islam,” and “There is no God but Allah,” as they tried to push their way towards the church. The police reportedly used sticks, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, who, according to security reports, were throwing stones and trashcans at the police. The protesters managed to break the church’s windows and smash cars parked nearby. The resulting mêlée ended with three of the protestors dead, and 143 injured. Cars and shops in the neighbourhood were destroyed, and some 105 people arrested.
Reacting to the Alexandria tension, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi and His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, issued a joint statement urging Muslims and Christians to resort to dialogue instead of violence. The Coptic Church has also strongly denied that the play ever targeted Islam, The Alexandria Maglis Milli, the Coptic community council, issued a declaration in which it asserted that the play in question was presented inside the church more than two years ago within the context of combating terrorism. “The Church respects all religions and offers everyone a loving hand,” the declaration said. It warned that what happened might be the first step in a scheme to spark sectarian violence, the scale and dread of which cannot be fathomed. Pope Shenouda III delegated his secretaries Bishop You’annis and Bishop Irmiya to meet church officials and local government officials in Alexandria to attempt to contain the tension. On Sunday morning, they joined priests of Mari Girgis at the Holy Mass, which was attended by the Maglis Milli members. Anba You’annis read the Pope’s message to the Alexandria congregation. “We are in the hands of God. He will take care of us,” it said. Alexandria’s governor, General Abdel-Salam al-Mahgoub and general Ahmed Rushdy, director-general of State security, visited the church later in the day.
Local political leaders and security officials are laying the blame on Islamists who, they said, were trying to score points with the public in the lead up to next month’s parliamentary elections. Analysts suggest that Islamists might exploited the conflict to damage the reputation of Maher Khellah, a Coptic Christian running on the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NPD) ticket in Alexandria’s impoverished Ghorbal district. Khellah, one of only two Copts running as NDP candidates nationwide, has been in negotiators with the NDP over whether or not he should withdraw from the race. “This violence is not about the [play], it is all about the elections,” Khellah said. In any case, “the play was not offensive to Islam, because its converted Christian character was saved by his Muslim friend”.
Copt killed in riot at el-Udaysaat
One Christian died and at least 11 Egyptians were reportedly injured on 19 January when Muslims clashed with security police and set fire to a Christian community centre in Upper Egypt.
Coptic Christian Kamaal Shaker died of injuries he received when a group of Muslims set fire to an Orthodox-owned building in the town of el-Udaysaat, near the city of Luxor, said Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Egyptian weekly Watani.
Muslims who heard prayers from the all-night service in the community center threw torches into the building at 4 a.m. Thursday, Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar reported today. According to the newspaper, all those injured, including security guards Ahmad Hosni and Yasser Mahmood, were taken to Luxor International Hospital for treatment. Hosni was admitted to the intensive care unit for suffocation-related injuries. Although the church was established in 1968, it is claimed that the centre had been banned from holding religious services in 1971, when the authorities told the congregation to apply for registration. Recently the community began to remodel the building and had planned to inaugurate it for conducting prayer services. The all-night prayer service was being conducted on the eve of Epiphany, celebrated 12 days after the Eastern Orthodox January 7 Christmas.
Police arrested 10 men involved in the attack and the owner of the building, an Egyptian security source told Reuters.
Pope Shenouda III delegated seven bishops to attend Shaker’s funeral service, which was held at the unlicensed venue where the riot took place.
Many churches, such as St. George’s in the Sohag province, have had their applications for official registration stalled for years by government officials. The Coptic congregation in the village of Bani Khalid has been unsuccessfully applying for church registration since authorities closed down the church building in 1990.
Christian Homes Attacked
Muslims in a village north of Cairo vandalized Christian homes after a Muslim man died of heart failure upon witnessing a fight between his son and a Christian. Though the initial dispute was reportedly nonreligious in nature, a group of Muslims in the village of Kafr Salama carried out retaliatory attacks on 10 December against seven Christian homes, including those of Soliman Bakheet, George Naguib and Kadri Damien.
According to village priest Father Domadios of the Abi Seifeim Coptic Church, the situation was ‘resolved’ at an informal village meeting, attended by the deputy governor of Sharkeya governorate and the head of police. Two Christian families involved in the initial fight are expected to leave the village and pay a fine of 500,000 Egyptian pounds.
Islamicists Gain in Egypt’s elections
Egypt ’s parliamentary elections last December left the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood as the largest and most influential opposition party. Elected as “independents” on the slogan, “Islam is the solution”, it captured 88 seats (an overall gain of 71 seats), giving it 19.4% membership of the 454 seat People’s Assembly (Majilis Al-Sha’ab)
Although President Mubarek’s National Democratic Party has a clear majority, having won 311 seats and controlling 68.5% of the Assembly, it made no gains but suffered the loss of 93 seats. Ten of the Assembly’s seats are non-elective but appointed by Presidential decree and of these, five were given to Copts .
Following the elections Egypt’s 26 provincial governors were sworn into officer on the first day of the country’s new administration. One of these was Magdy Ayoub Iskandar, a Coptic Orthodox, as governor of Qena, a province nearly 1,000 kilometres south of Cairo with a sizeable Christian population. Iskander is the first Copt to become governor since former President Anwar al-Sadat appointed Coptic war veteran, Fouad Aziz Ghali, as governor of South Sinai province after the 1973 war. The Egyptian constitution does not require officials in top government posts to have a certain religious affiliation. However, some positions, such as the head of intelligence and university deans, have in the past been held only by Moslems. The new cabinet also includes two Christian monisters, Youssef Boutros Ghali as Finance Minister and Maged George as Minister of State for the Environment.
In his address before the new governors, President Mubarak urged them to guard the social fabric of Egyptian society, with its Moslems and Copts, in dealing with their problems, especially those related to building places of worship.
Restrictions eased on Church Repairs
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt eased long-controversial restrictions on church repair in a Presidential Decree (No. 291) of 8 December 2005. The old law, requiring the president’s personal approval of simple repairs like fixing a church toilet, was invoked as recently as September. The law has also been blamed for delays of more than a decade in issuing church repair and building permits.
The new decree allows churches to do basic repairs without waiting for government approval. The new measure reforms the Hamayouni Decree, an Ottoman law instituted in 1856. Governors must now process requests for major renovation of existing churches within thirty days, a measure that requires unprecedented accountability. A governor can only reject an application by producing detailed reasons for the decision.
Pope Shenouda III promptly sent his thanks to the Egyptian president. However, some Copts remain skeptical of the decree’s vague wording, as well as its failure to resolve fundamental inequality between the construction of mosques and churches in Egypt. Set up to legislate non-Muslim places of worship, the Hamayouni law and its 1934 amendment, the Al-Azabi decree, have long been viewed by Egypt’s Coptic Christians as a practical proof of their status as second-class citizens.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR) for 2005, during the past year, only twelve presidential decrees approving “church-related construction” have been published. Youssef Sidhom, editor of Coptic newspaper Watani, expressed concerns at new decree’s vague wording which requires that the governor will decide on whether to permit a church renovation “after consulting the concerned authorities.” Who comprises these ‘concerned authorities’ is unclear.
The new decree delegates authority for church renovation to Egypt’s 26 governors, following a trend established by similar directives in 1998 and 1999. Giving control to governors and the State Security Investigation (SSI), Egypt’s security police, those directives were hailed at the time as a break through for easing church repairs, but in reality, churches have found obtaining permission more difficult. Often local officials have used legal technicalities to block church construction, even after the congregation had received presidential approval, according to the State Department’s IRFR. As a result, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches have resorted to constructing buildings which later they have been unable to register as new places of worship.
An example quoted is St. George’s Church in Bani Khalid in Sohag Province, which was closed down by authorities in May 1990 and has been standing empty ever since. In another case cited by the IRFR, the Evangelical Church in the Cairo suburb of Maadi has been unable to obtain a license for 50 years.
Presidential permission is still needed to construct a new church, while the building of a new mosque carries no such requirement.
El-Keraza subsequently reported that Presidential Decree No. 17 for 2006 has licensed the establishment of a Coptic church in Sheikh Zayed City.
Concerns over issue of visas
In December it was reported that the US State Department had launched an investigation into whether hard-line Islamic employees at the U.S Embassy in Egypt had been working behind the scenes to deny visas to Coptic Christians. Some 15 to 20 Egyptian employees of the embassy’s consular section were being closely investigated after top officials received complaints from lawyers and human-rights groups about discriminatory behaviour toward the Copts seeking visas to the United States.
In a recent meeting organized by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), top State Department officials were told that these employees, who conduct pre-screening interviews and translations, appear to have unusual influence over a process that is supposed to be controlled by Americans. Hundreds, possibly thousands, may have been wrongly denied visas.
“This is a widespread problem that we have been aware of for some time. Now, however, there are people stepping forward and are making formal complaints,” said Father Keith Roderick, head of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, who attended the meeting.
Among those making complaints to the State Department is a Christian man who was seeking to donate a kidney to an uncle in New Jersey.
He says he was twice told to remove the cross he was wearing if he wanted a visa. He refused and was denied a visa. Another concerned a woman who was scheduled to speak at a human-rights conference in Washington about what it is like to live in a Muslim-dominated country. She claimed embassy officials demanded to see her speech. She and two other Egyptian Copts were denied a visa while Egyptian Muslims were granted visas. They have asked that their names not be made public for fear of retaliation in Egypt.
“This should be a concern because if they can influence who they can keep out of the United States, they could also influence who can get in,” said Caroline Doss, a Jersey City immigration lawyer who presented State Department officials with affidavits from Coptic Christian clients.
Wolf, who heads a subcommittee that controls the State Department’s budget, had no comment because he is conducting a separate probe.
State Department officials wouldn’t comment.