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VIOLENCE AGAINST COPTS

Human Rights activists released

Peter Ezzat and Dr. Adel Fawzy Faltas, who were arrested whilst investigating reports of the murder of a Copt (see Review No. 115, pp. 21-22), were released in November, after having been detained for three months. Unsubstantiated charges of insulting Islam and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad were dropped.

During their detention they were kept for two weeks in isolation cells, measuring 1.75 metres in length and three-quarters of a metre in width, with no seats, before being transferred to a common cell shared with some 60 convicted murderers and drug dealers.

Church damaged in riot

In December 2007 Egyptian police arrested at least seven Egyptian Muslims after a riot in the southern city of Isna left at least 13 Christian-owned shops ransacked or burned and a church front damaged.  Security sources said a car and a motorcycle owned by Christians were also burned and it appeared the rioters had attempted to burn the church. Tensions have been high in the city for several days with a number of incidents threatening to escalate into sectarian clashes. Police responded by upgrading their presence.

The problem appears to have originated when an angry crowd of Muslims surrounded and smashed up a Christian-owned store, where they suspected a Muslim girl was having amorously linked with two Christian boys.

Verdict in Higazi case

On 29 January a Cairo court ruled against Mohammed Ahmed Higazi (see Glastonbury Review No. 115, pp. 24-25), a Muslim convert to Christianity who requested that his religious affiliation be changed. Judge Muhammad Husseini announcing his verdict that it was against Islamic lawfor a Muslim to leave Islam. “He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert,” Husseini told the administrative court. His decision was based on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which declares Islamic law, or sharia, the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and can not return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

Higazi and his wife, Zeinab, were forced to go into hiding because of the number of death threats made against them. In January she gave birth to a daughter. Higazi’s father told reporters, “When I see my son, I will give him a chance to return to Islam.” If his son refused, he said, “I will kill him with my own hands, I will shed his blood publicly.”

Yourself al-Bawdry, Mandy, one of several clerics who called for Higazi’s death; Magdy al-Anany and at least three other fundamentalist Muslim attorneys filed to support the government and filed charges of inciting sectarian strife against Higazi’s original lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhla.

However, on two other judgements delivered on the same day, Judge Husseini rejected a suit calling for the government to outlaw conversion and implement a penalty for apostasy, saying that it was irrelevant because Higazi had not been allowed to convert. He also granted Egypt’s small Bahai community the right to place a dash in the section of their ID card stating to which religion they belong.

Important Court ruling

On 9 February Judge El-Sayeed Noufal of Egypt’s Administrative Court ruled in favour of twelve converts to Islam seeking to return to Christianity He ordered Egypt’s Interior Ministry to issue the converts “Christian documents” but stated that their former status as “ex-Muslim” should be noted on all official documents. Like the earlier judgement on the Bahai community, this actually draws attention to their status as converts and makes them vulnerable to discrimination or worse.

Attack on Monastery of Abu Fana

The monastery of Abu Fana lies on the eastern border of the Western Desert, 30kms north of the town of Malawi in Minya Province in Upper Egypt. It is very ancient, having been established in the fourth century by St Abu-Fana, a disciple of Anba Shenouda the Archimandrite of Atripe, the ‘father of hermits.’ It flourished until the 15th century, but was abandoned by the monks as sand dunes engulfed and covered it. At the end of the 19th century Father Mitiass Gaballah, the priest of the near-by Qasr-Hur village, removed the sand and uncovered the buildings and finally, in 2004, the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church officially recognised this solitary conglomerate of churches and cells as a ‘monastery’. The fifteen monks and hermits, living without running water or electricity applied for a permit to build a wall around its grounds but by the beginning of 2008 this had still not been granted although they had suffered some twelve attacks from ‘Arabs’ who live in the desert and who appear to covet part of the monastery grounds.

On 10 January 2008 the monastery was the target of a new and more serious, armed assault which resulted in the almost total ruin of eight cells belonging to solitary hermits, with the Bibles, books and icons inside them burned. One hermit was injured. The leader was Samir Mohamed Hussein who goes by the name of Samir Abu-Luli and who, together with his son Abdullah, had as recently as New Year’s Day led an attack on the monastery and occupied a portion of the its land. Although this attack was reported to the local police, no action was taken and the monastery’s complaint was not registered.
In the face of such official indifference it was hardly surprising, therefore, when more than 30 men with automatic weapons appeared one morning, surrounded the monastery buildings, and then attacked the hermits and their solitary cells. Providentially, all but one hermit were at the monastery rather than in their cells, but he alerted the monks to the onslaught.  The attackers opened fire and managed to wound Father Makary. Once again the police did nothing; no culprits were apprehended and no investigation conducted although several of the monks were submitted to lengthy questioning as though they were the culprits rather than the victims.

Violence again erupted at the monastery at the end of May, when the monks began building a wall around their property, having receiving official approval in April. Muslim residents of the area claim the agricultural land on which the wall is being built as theirs, and say it is damaging their crops.

The attack started at the farmlands surrounding the monastery buildings and owned and cultivated by the monks to support the monastery and its inmates. The plants and fields were destroyed, and the monks and workers assaulted. The attack then extended to the monastery proper. Father Domadius, who was at the monastery when the attack took place, said that at least 60 men carrying weapons stormed the monastery.  A church was burnt as well as a tractor owned by the monastery. The tractor is the only means of transport that the monks and surrounding hermits can use since the area is in the major part sand dunes. “They split into several groups. One group proceeded to destroy the wall. Others entered a chapel used by the monks and destroyed and burned property.” Two monks were injured and two Coptic Christian workers at the monastery suffered gunshot wounds and were rushed to nearby Malawi hospital in critical condition in a small truck used by the monastery for its farm animals. Despite repeated calls by the monastery to the police and the ambulance, neither arrived at the scene of the attack before 8:30pm. The Qasr Hur police station is a mere two kilometres away from the monastery.

The attackers abducted three other monks as they finally left. A security official later confirmed that three monks had been kidnapped by Muslims during the clashes and were released on Sunday morning and taken to hospital for treatment. Father Boulos, a priest at the Malawi church, managed to visit the three monks in hospital. “They said they were tortured, tied up and beaten and humiliated,” he said. “One monk was hit with the back of a rifle and had his leg broken.”

The next day at least 300 angry Copts demonstrated in the southern town of Malawi against what they said was government inaction in the face of repeated attacks by Muslims against their community. Surrounded by hundreds of black-clad security forces, protestors chanted: “With our blood and soul, we will defend the cross,” and appealed to President Hosni Mubarak to intervene because “Coptic hearts are on fire.” During the demonstration there were violent clashes and Khalil Ibrahim Mohammed, a Muslim resident of a town neighbouring the Abu Fana Monastery was killed.

The Governor of Minya Province, Ahmed Dia Eddine sought to play down the incident, saying it was a personal rather than a sectarian issue. “This was a fight between two neighbours and nothing else.” He deliberately ignored the ownership documents of the monastery and insisted that the borders of the monastery grounds should be determined through an official 50-member committee, entrusted with drawing the borders of the monastery grounds in order to determine the path of a protecting fencing wall and that a security squad would directly demolish the cultivated land under dispute. They were accompanied by security forces in more than 15 trucks. This response implied that the monastery grounds were not well defined, whereas the monastery was in possession of the ownership documents of all its grounds and has been regularly paying the annual land tax incurred.

In the meantime local Coptic clergy had come to demonstrate their solidarity with the monks  and were holding a sit-in to protest against what they saw as gross injustice against the monastery. The monks vowed that they would never give up the farmland they had worked so hard to reclaim from what was originally no more than arid sand dunes. They conducted their own sit-in on the road leading to the monastery, placing themselves as human shields in the path of any truck or demolition squad that might head to the farmlands. However, when the Committee arrived the monks discovered that its assignment had been changed; instead of determining the monastery borders as was originally announced by Minya’s governor, the task was now to draw the borders of the archaeological precinct in the monastery area, by order of the Culture Minister. Those in charge of the monastery received the committee in the monastery guest room, and offered its members tea and refreshments as they began their work.

The committee included representatives from the authorities of antiquities, State property, land survey, and agriculture, as well as the head of Malawi town council. Once the committee arrived at the monastery and began debating the border issue, it was obvious there was a problem. The maps, and the perspectives, of the different authorities were inconsistent. According to the antiquities authority maps, the borders of the archaeological precinct around the monastery would be expanded, meaning that some 70 feddans today owned by the Arabs would be included within the monastery borders. This would effectively create a real dispute over land between the monastery and the Arabs, The land survey authority maps, on the other hand, were in accordance with the monastery borders as proved by the ownership documents in its possession. The difference between the committee members was not resolved, and the committee adjourned its meeting and left.

The monks made an official report at the police station of the event but the issue remains unresolved. Without a fencing wall the monastery remains vulnerable to attack. The culprits who committed the horrendous crimes against the monks and the monastery have not been brought to justice. And officials insist it was no crime, but a dispute over land.

Coptic jewellers murdered in Zeitoun

In May two men on motorbikes, disguised in wigs and sunglasses, shot dead Makram Gamil, aged 60, and three of his staff, all of them Coptic Christians, when they raided his jewellery shop in Cairo’s busy Zeitoun suburb.  Officials stated that the attackers escaped without stealing anything from the shop and suggested that the motive could have been revenge. The same day, another Coptic jewellers in Alexandria, was attacked. This time no-one was killed but £14,000 worth of merchandise was stolen.  Police claim the incidents are entirely criminal in nature and not sectarian.

Riots in Fayoum

On 20 June rioting erupted in the village of al-Nazla in Fayoum, 100km southwest Cairo. Muslim villagers went on a looting and destruction rampage against Coptic homes, businesses, and cars following news that Dalia Mohamed, a former Coptic Christian who had converted to Islam, together with her 10-month baby Seif al-Islam, had run away from her husband a day earlier while on a visit to Cairo.

Muslims roaring Islamic slogans began to attack Coptic houses and shops. Local security officials summoned reinforcements but could only bring the riot under control by using tear gas to disband the rioters. They gained control of the main streets but were unable to prevent the church or the priest’s home from being attacked. Peace was only concluded in the early hours of dawn of the next day, when an all day curfew was imposed. Security officials attempted to hold a reconciliation meeting after they had found Dalia and returned her to her husband.

Two years previously 23-year-old Dimiana Makram Hanna had gone missing from her home in al-Nazla. Her parents reported her missing at the local police station but were told a few days later that she had converted to Islam and married Mohamed al-Sayed Zaki and was now called Dalia Mohammed. The police refused to let her parents or the local priest see her. Some months later, however, someone who claimed to know where she was living, promised her family they could see their missing daughter. When her brothers Maged and Boutros Hanna, accompanied by friends from Cairo, arrived at that address they were arrested by the police, charged with attempting to abduct their sister, imprisoned for two weeks, and only released following huge demonstrations by Copts. By then Zaki and his wife had returned to Nazla amidst rumours that their she was unhappy and ill treated by her husband. When she disappeared from home with her baby, suspicion immediately fell on her brothers, who had themselves moved to Cairo. Some 4,000 Muslim villagers gathered and began attacking the Copts’ homes and businesses, shouting “Kill the infidels”.

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