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VIOLENCE AGAINST COPTS

Outrage at proposed demolition

In March 2006, an official city decree required the demolition of a Coptic monastery’s recently constructed guesthouse which is alleged to hasve been constructed without permission. It gave the monks of Deir Saleeb monastery in the Egyptian city of Millawi only five days to file an appeal before bulldozers demolished the structure.

Deir Saleeb (Monastery of the Cross) is located in the al Hoor region of the city of Millawi. The monastery is of noted historical value, and contains not only one of Egypt’s largest cross altar paintings but the bodies of Saint Abu Fana as well as Father Mensi Yohanna, a respected scientist and writer. Monks have responded to the needs of religious pilgrims, tourists, and other visitors seeking spiritual insight by constructing a guesthouse on the monastery’s property.

According to monks within the monastery, General Sayyid ‘Othman Ismaeel, the president of the city’s maglis or governing council issued a notice of demolition to Bishop Dimetrios. Members of the local Coptic community reacted to the news by organizing a massive sit-in protest. Coptic youth began positioning themselves inside the guesthouse in anticipation of the demolition and one youth leader was quoted as saying, “We prefer to be run over by bulldozers than relinquish the monastery to the attackers.”

Dare Saleeb has also been the target of several other recent attacks from hostile community members, including desert-dwelling Arabs who have stormed the monastery in their attempt to claim as their own the property where the guesthouse now stands. Attacks have become so frequent that the monastery unsuccessfully petitioned the city for permission to construct a protective fence.

Attacks in Quena

On 4 May, there was an outbreak of violence in the village of Faw Bahry, Deshna, in Quena province. The 1,500 local Copts were renovating the building of St Mary’s  Association when local Muslim extremists gathered and chanted “There is no god but Allah and Christians are the enemies of Allah.” They began throwing fire balls at the association building and Christian-owned homes when rumours circulated that the Copts were turning the association building into a church, the nearest Coptic Church being seven miles away. It took fire trucks some two hours to arrive to deal with four Coptic homes which had been set ablaze whilst security forces did not take decisive measures against the perpetrators but instead although arrested some 22 Copts !

Co-ordinated attacks on Alexandrian churches

Worshippers at three Coptic churches in Alexandria came under attack from knife-wielding assailants during Friday Mass on 14 April. One worshipper was killed and more than a dozen wounded in simultaneous attacks. Hundreds of Christians gathered in angry protest outside the Coptic Christian churches and witnesses said clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims.

At Saint George’s Church (Mari Girgis) in Al Hadra, in the Bab Sharq district at around 8:00 a.m., an extremist stormed into the church during prayer, holding two sharp objects, one in each hand, with which he attacked four individuals, one of them was seriously injured and two others received lesser injuries. He was chanting extremist religious slogans “There is no God but Allah” and “Allah is the greatest” and fled afterwards. “We closed the doors of the church as soon as he started attacking the worshippers and we fought back with sticks but he tried to flee through one of the church’s underground passages,” said a witness.

At St. Mark & St. Peter’s church in Sidi Beshr, located in Al Montazah district, many kilometres away from the first church, at around 9:30 a.m. worshippers inside the church were surprised by an extremist who was carrying two weapons, one in each hand standing at the sidewalk across from the main entrance of the church. He began attacking worshippers who were coming out of church after the first mass while calling for Jihad. He stabbed three people, one of them, Nushi Atta Girgis, aged 78, who later died as a result of his wounds, while another was seriously wounded. Worshippers tried to arrest the assailant but were amazed that the police guard standing in front of church pointed his gun against the worshippers instead of the assailant !

At Saint Mary and St. John the Beloved Church in Janaklis in Al Raml district, which is several kilometres away from the second church, at around 10:10 a.m. an extremist stormed into the church forecourt while holding two objects one in each hand. He tried to stab a young girl standing next to her grandfather who tried to prevent him, causing him to fall to the ground. One of the church youth threw a chair at him and when he fled, the youth chased him to the Shadas area where he vanished.

Police reports varied in details of the number of people injured, but it was later agreed that a total of 17 people were injured. Security forces sealed off the areas where the attacks took place and set up checkpoints across the city. Initially, the police said they had arrested three men. A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, characterized the men as “insane” and said they were carrying tranquilising medication. Abdullah Osman, an official with the ruling National Democratic Party, questioned the sanity of the attackers. “They are only insane people, and insane people can do anything. They are not normal,” he said.

The interior ministry announced that Mahmoud Abdul Razak Salah El Din Hussein, aged 25,  the holder of a B.Sc. in Commerce, had been arrested and charged with murder, illegal entry into a place of worship and illegal possession of weapons. They also admitted that he had been arrested during the riots last October but subsequently released. While the ministry spoke of only one assailant, police said there were in fact two attackers carrying knives.

The government and church officials were trying to calm the angry crowds who gathered to protest against the attacks. On Saturday afternoon, the funeral of Girgis was held in Alexandria. Eyewitnesses reported that the mourners, guarded by security forces, marched out of the Church of the Saints in Sidi Bishr chanting slogans of a pious Christian nature. When it reached 45th St in Assafra, east Alexandria, stones and glass were hurled at them from the top of a building they were passing. Large numbers of young Muslims armed with sticks, stones, glass bottles and swords, shouting Islamic slogans, followed the mourners. Hand-to-hand fights erupted between the young Muslims with Christians, and spread further to involve onlookers and residents of the district. Muslims destroyed scores of cars and 39 stores owned by Christians, looting them and setting them aflame. Even women and children came under attack.

The security forces were late to scatter the demonstrators with rubber bullets and tear gas, and eyewitnesses complain that they were particularly harsh with Copts. “I panicked and ran towards the policemen for protection, since on the other side I could see a crowd of Muslims ready to attack,” one Coptic young man who was on his way to church stated. “There were three other people near me, and the policemen caught us and started beating us cruelly.” He was loaded onto a police truck with other Copts. He heard an officer ask, “Are these 75? We need 75 people.” “They were just catching anyone they could lay their hands upon,” the young man commented. According to reports, police arrested 101 people over the course of the weekend, 54 Christians and 47 Muslims. “It’s the policy of keeping the balances,” Metropolitan Wissa commented. He said that no matter who is actually responsible for the violence, “the government always arrests an equal number of Christians and Muslims.”

Many of the 33 released over the following two weeks reported mistreatment at the hands of Egypt’s security police. One young man, whom police had grabbed and beaten as he was leaving church, said that he was blindfolded at the police station and asked why he had been arrested. “When I answered that I’d done nothing, I was told that I was lying,” the man said. “They threatened to electrocute me, burn me, and get my mother in to insult her.” “They took off my shirt and poured water over me telling me it was kerosene.” “You take your mother to church for the priest to [violate] her,” police told another man as they whipped him.

Late on the night of 15 April 15, after Girgis’ funeral, unknown vandals attacked Asafra’s Virgin Mary Church. The intruders set fire to the church office, destroying the ante-room used for baptisms and completely burning the church’s records. Church staff confirmed that they immediately called the fire department, but that firefighters refused to come when they found out that a church was burning. “When it burns down with you inside, we shall come,” fire department officials allegedly told church members over the phone.

Christian worshippers on Palm Sunday asked strangers wishing to enter churches to show their identity cards and checked their wrists for a cross tattoo. Security sources said scuffles broke out outside the Al-Quidissin church following prayers marking Palm Sunday.

On Sunday evening, the National Democratic Party organised a peaceful demonstration on the same 45th St in Assafra to condemn fanaticism and show support to the Copts. Muslims on the street spontaneously joined the demonstration, until it grew to some 3,000 strong. Many men and veiled women entered the church to talk to the people inside, apologise for the bloody events of the day before, and express their staunch support and their condemnation of fanaticism.

“We are trying to calm the situation after many of our youth started protesting,” Father Augustinos said. “We are telling them to calm down. It doesn’t do any good for the country to make protests. We want to live in peace and tranquility but these are people who had their family members killed or wounded. We are doing our best.”

A group of about 40 human rights and pro-democracy activists gathered in front of the prosecutor general’s office in Cairo on Palm Sunday to denounce the Alexandria attacks and demand justice. George Ishaq, a leader of the pro-reform Kefaya (Enough) movement, blamed the government and the police forces for failing to prevent attacks on churches and warned of an escalation in sectarian violence.
The activists also carried placards criticising the government. “Who will bring to account the instigators of sectarian strife?” read one of them. “Job opening: Mentally deranged person wanted to cooperate with the interior ministry,” read another.

The People’s Assembly (the Egyptian parliament) condemned the church attacks and announced the formation of a fact-finding committee to investigate the attacks. The investigative panel includes members of the parliamentary committees for religious affairs, defence, State security, human rights, culture and media. It will be chaired by Dr Zeinab Radwan, deputy to the Speaker of the Parliament and will issue its report within 30 days.

Alexandria and Police sources claimed that Abdel-Raziq, who works at a grocery store, was mentally unstable. The allegation incensed Copts, who felt that the government was evading the real issue of the rampant culture of hate directed at them. The Chairman of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Dr Botrous Botrous-Ghali, currently in Paris, denounced the attacks, and Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, NCHR deputy chairman, visited the injured in the hospital. Parliament issued a declaration denouncing the attack in strong terms. The Speaker of the Parliament, Dr. Ahmed Fathi Sorour, said that Copts were not a minority but were part of Egypt’s fabric, and that fanatic acts should be firmly confronted. For his part, Minister of State for Legal Affairs and Parliamentary Councils, Dr Mofid Shehab, said it was in no one’s interest to exaggerate or underplay what took place in Alexandria. “There is no room, he said, for trifling with national unity.” Saad al-Katatni, representative of the banned Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement in Parliament, stressed that Abdel-Raziq had nothing to do with the MB, and that the only beneficiaries from the incident were those who demand that the emergency law be maintained. In an emotional, tearful address, MP Ibtisam Habib demanded serious measures on the educational, cultural, and media fronts, to confront what she termed the alien, divisive, sectarian concepts that have come to dominate the Egyptian street. She said that Copts were Egyptians not foreigners and that our children should be brought up to bear this in mind. “Only thus, could Egypt go back to the good old days.”

The day following the riots, the Alexandria Clergy Council and the Alexandria Laymen Council issued a Joint Communiqué,

“Despite the fact that these sorrowful events indicate that its a terrorist plan targeting the worshippers in many churches in Alexandria during Christian celebrations, we were surprised by the official statements made to the different media outlets downplaying the events and portray it in a false way even before the investigations of the public prosecution begins, this resulted in the dismay of the Coptic people specially that this despicable scenario has been repeated each time the Copts are attacks whether in Alexandria or elsewhere. Therefore, we are hereby expressing our denunciation and dismay of these repeated attacks and the official statements that undermine and insult the intelligence of the Copts and their feelings, and tamper with the future of the nation as it is completely untrue and lack transparency.”

A number of statements were issued by Coptic communities in the diaspora. Abba Antony, Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Ireland, Scotland, & the North East of England, condemned the attacks and called upon the Egyptian government “to cease collaborating with the murderers as happens every time there is an attack on Coptic churches and/or the properties of Copts. Fair and democratic governments protect their peoples and their properties from such attacks, chaos, plunders or arson.” He also highlighted the discrimination which Copts suffer in all walks of life and demanded that the government put an end to the media’s incitement against Christianity with the blessing and the full knowledge of the Egyptian government and which has resulted in “many massacres.”

Another statement, issued by the clergy of the Papal diocese in England, declared:

In light of the above, we formally condemn these repeated attacks and we do not accept the explanation given for them. We reject the official statement made by the Egyptian authorities in response to these atrocities as defying all logic and an insult to the feelings of Coptic Christians. We take the view that the statement lacks any veracity or transparency. For an attack to take place across four churches in a few hours, and in the last instance at almost the same time, would strongly suggest that there was more than one person involved in these events. Furthermore we are forced to ask the question regarding the obvious absence of the security forces.”

Attempted copycat attack foiled

Two days after the Alexandria attacks, on Sunday 16 April, another knife attack took place at St. Mary Church on  Toman Bay Street in Cairo’s Zeitoun suburb, when  Zachariah El Sayed Zachariah was arrested before he could cause any injury.   His father claimed that his son suffers from mental illness but already has a criminal record for fraud, theft, and kidnapping in Masr El Gedidah area.

State of Emergency renewed in Egypt

Egypt’s Parliament approved the renewal of the state of emergency from 1 June 2006 for a further two years, a controversial measure which Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif, justified by referring to recent “sectarian incidents and terrorist operations.” The opposition Muslim Brotherhood condemned the government request, arguing that emergency laws were ineffective and that its justification was tantamount to “government terror.”! It was overwhelmingly passed by 378 members present in the 454-strong Parliament while 91 voted against. The renewal needed a two-thirds majority to be passed and the ruling National Democratic Party controls around three quarters of the chamber.

Brotherhood MPs shouted slogans as the vote got under way, some of them wearing scarves inscribed with the words “No to the state of emergency.” The state of emergency has been imposed almost continuously since 1967 and been renewed every three years under President Hosni Mubarak’s 25-year rule. During his campaign for the September 2005 presidential election Mubarak promised to abolish the state of emergency. But the 77-year-old president said in a recent interview that new counterterrorism legislation would be needed to replace exception laws and that it could take up to two years to draft.

House of Lords Debate

In the House of Lords on 8 May Baroness Cox raised the issue of whether the British government would make representations to the government of Egypt about the recent attacks on Coptic Christians. Responding to her question, Lord Triesman, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that the Government shared her concern about recent incidents in Egypt (and earlier attacks in October 2005) and that following the events in Alexandria between 14-16 April, the British embassy in Cairo discussed the matter with the Egyptian Government on 22 April. The Egyptian Government confirmed that an investigation into the events was being conducted and that some arrests had been made Lady Cox asked whether the British government was aware that the attacks on the churches in Alexandria were not isolated incidents but part of a trajectory of increasing violence and discrimination against Christian and other religious minorities in Egypt and whether it would urge the Egyptian Government to ensure freedom of religious practice for all their citizens in accordance with their obligations as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Lord Triesman noted that as the Egyptian constitution states that all Egyptian citizens should be treated equally, regardless of religion, it was important that provision be made for all Egyptian citizens to receive exactly equal treatment in all social and political respects which the British government would continue to urge.

Baroness Williams of Crosby intervened to ask the Minister whether he was persuaded that the Government of Egypt were doing everything that they could, not only to stop the attacks but to ensure that no private group of militia or other people mount attacks that are not then immediately stopped by the highly trained, very effective and tough Egyptian police. Lord Triesman said that they had encouraged the Egyptian Government to take every step to arrest the perpetrators of attacks and bring them to proper justice and believed there was “some evidence” that a big effort ws being made to do that. Significantly, he noted that he did “not accept that it is wholly convincing that the most recent attacks were the acts of “one psychologically deranged individual.” Metropolitan Wissa and Dr. Helmy Guirguis were both present during the debate.

Coptic Christian killed in Zagazig

Fouad Fawzy, a 42-year-old Copt and father of two, was killed in what appears to be an anti-Christians hate crime on 27 June while at his shop   located at Al Hamam street in Zagazig, Al Sharqeya province. According to eyewitnesses, a bearded man named Hossam Mahfouz, a 27 year old with a criminal record, went to Fouad’s shoemaking shop and asked whether or not Fouad is Christian. When Fouad answered positively Hossam immediately stabbed him in the chest and neck. Fouad died immediately.

Thousands of Copts marched in his funeral procession demanding justice for the victim and  warning  against any government attempts to brand the criminal as lunatic, as they did in the attacks against Copts in Alexandria. Hosam is currently detained pending investigations.

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