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The Shame of Nag Hammadi

Murder and mayhem on Christmas Eve

On 6 January 2010, as the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas Eve, three gunmen in a dark green Fiat 132 with darkened windows and no number plates opened fire with automatic guns on worshippers leaving the midnight mass at Mar Yuhanna’s Cathedral in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Six Christians – mostly young men between 16-25 – were killed outright and a random Muslim who had come to greet his Christian friend, with many other’s wounded, of whom a further two died from their wounds. Filmed footage, taken on mobile phones by eye-witnesses and posted on the internet, show corpses lying in pools of blood.

This followed a tense period of inter-communal strife the previous month, which involved five days of rioting and looting of Christian properties in the neighbouring areas of Farshout, Abu Shusha, Aerky and Alshokeify. These events were sparked by a rumour that a Copt had indecently assaulted a twelve year-old Muslim girl, although no one was ever charged. Many Copts believe that the incident was fabricated by the Muslims as a pretext to justify violence against them. Bishop Kyrillos, who had defended his flock and criticised the State Security’s handling of the riots, which included the forcible deportation of 163 Copts from their village, said that there had been threats prior to Christmas; for which he had taken the precaution of scheduling the mass to finish an hour earlier than usual. “For days I had expected something to happen on Christmas Eve.” He himself had left the church minutes before the attack, “A driving car swerved near me, so I took the back door. By the time I shook hands with someone at the gate, I heard the mayhem, lots of machine-gun shots.” He later told the Middle East Christian Association, “I was the one intended to be assassinated by this plot, and when it failed the criminals turned round and started shooting and finishing off the young ones.”

Suspicion of collusion between the Security and the attackers were roused by the fact that, for the first time, none of the State Security attended the Christmas Eve mass. It had been assumed that the Muslim victim was a security guard but there had been no guards whatsoever. One witness commented “Security came as everything was over, instead of trying to catch the criminals, they were interrogating us about the description of the cars.” By contrast with their earlier indifference the police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the anxious crowd who naturally gravitated towards the public hospital. Here many of the wounded were rudely refused admission by officials and had to be driven to Sohag public hospital, some 100 kilometres away. One of the wounded, with bullets in his shoulder, stomach, pelvis and another only two centimetres from his heart was given minimal first aid at Nag Hammadi hospital before being operated on at Sohag and finally transferred to Alexandria. The angry crowd reacted by throwing stones at the hospital windows and damaging nearby vehicles. At the mass funeral, which took place on Christmas Day, the police only allowed direct family members to accompany the coffins to the cemetery and imposed a curfew until the following morning. Another internet video shows the procession being pelted with stones and garbage by Muslims.

Later that night the police arrested Mohamed Ahmed Hassan, known as Hamam al-Kamouni, together with Hindawi Saïd Mohamed Hassan who was driving the car and Qorashy Abul-Haggag Mohamed Ali. They were charged with “premeditated murder aimed at harming national interests.” Al-Kamouni is a hardened criminal, well known to the police, who has already attacked Coptic young women near churches in Nag Hammadi by throwing acid on them. Bishop Kyrillos publicly named him as the bodyguard and henchman of MP Abdel-Rehim al-Ghoul who was notorious for using him to execute outlaw activities in Nag Hammadi and to terrorise people during elections. At the mosque for Friday prayers on 12 January al-Ghoul was “belligerently speaking about ‘honour’ and ‘honour crimes’ in direct allusion to the alleged rape crime of last November.”

However, violence continued in the town with Muslim mobs attacking Copts and their properties with swords, butane gas cylinders and Molotov cocktails. Water and electricity were deliberately disconnected during these fires and when the fire brigade arrived, some ninety minutes later, it had empty tanks. A Coptic widow, Mary Om Boktor Kyrollos, was suffocated by fumes when her home was set alight. The Interior Ministry announced that forty-two people (14 Muslims, 28 Copts) had been arrested, many of them teenagers taken randomly from their homes in dawn raids. Some thirty ‘bloggers’ (which included respectable opposition politicians and human rights activists) who arrived in Nag Hammadi from Cairo to show their support for the victims’ families were arrested by police at the railway station and detained overnight in cold cells without water and with the threat of being charged with “illegal gathering, disrupting the authorities’ work and shouting slogans that could cause sectarian strife.”

At this weekly lecture in St. Mark’s Cathedral Pope Shenouda – visibly shaken by the atrocities – made an emotional statement,

“The city of Nag Hammadi is forever registered in history and it became a city of martyrs, because of what happened and the blood of the martyrs that was spilled there. We can call them ‘martyrs’, because they were murdered and were in faith and innocent; they were in the church all night and took Holy Communion and they were ready to meet the Lord.         And also we give the families of those who were martyred our love and consolation. We also console the family of the Muslim soldier who was shot and killed with them, as his blood was mixed with theirs on that night. We also must greet the patients. A list of names was given to me of those who were wounded and are in Sohag hospital ….. May God heal them all and grant them health. I’d like to say to Nag Hammadi that the whole country is concerned for you. All the authorities and people are concerned. Also, there is a lot of concern regarding Nag Hammadi throughout all of Egypt and abroad. The entire world has pity for you and compassion on those who were murdered and wounded. The name of the city of Nag Hammadi is on every tongue. We feel your pain and we are concerned for you. I have pity for you, as if I myself were suffering with you. I also say that God Himself is concerned for you, and all your prayers and cries rise to God and He will surely listen and hear them. God hears the cry of the weak and the oppressed.

When Cain killed his brother Abel, God said “The voice of your brother’s blood is screaming to me from the ground.” God also says to every man that cries out to him, “I will not leave you; I will not forsake you.” The righteous man Joseph, when persecuted by his brothers, and in the house of Potiphar, and imprisoned, was never without God, and the same when Moses struggled under Pharaoh. God did not leave him. What man is not able to do, God is able to do! When the prophet David struggled because of Saul, he escaped from one city to another, and God was with him as well. Be assured, God will not leave you nor forsake you. He will accept the blood of the martyrs and the wounds of those injured.

We pray that the investigation will be completed quickly and the judgement over the guilty will be made quickly by the courts, because the people’s hearts are heavy. I want to tell you that we always proclaim the truth. How can the truth shine here? Every man has his human rights, one of them being the right to live. The book of Genesis says, “He who sheds the blood of a man, his blood will also be shed by the hand of man.” A jury has the right to judge the murderer. Also regarding human rights, each man has the freedom to worship and have shelter ……. And we thank the organisations that defend human rights. Human rights have many aspects. Rights are related to the word ‘truth,’ and the word ‘truth’ is the name of God in Christianity and Islam. We hope that justice will be served. And all those who participated in the sort will be judged justly. May God comfort us all and may God bless the coming days. Instead of celebrating the feast of Christmas Eve, this tragedy occurred. Right must be taken whether on earth or in heaven. May God give comfort to all his people, all the people of Nag Hammadi, and to all Copts in Egypt, and all those who consider the Egyptians their brothers.”

Pope Shenouda visited six of the victims who had been transferred to the Victoria Hospital in Alexandria and prayed with them.

These events resulted in an outburst of anger across Egypt. Some three hundred human rights activists demonstrated in front of Cairo’s Supreme Court and all Human Rights organisations condemned the attack. A series of protests took place outside Egypt. On 19 January in Sydney, Australia, Copts were joined by other Christians in solidarity. Similar large demonstrations took place in Tampa, Florida; in Washington outside the White House; in Kitchener, Ontario and London. The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches i9ssued a statement noting,

“It is a matter of regret that in Egypt today Christians can easily fall victim to violence and hatred, and that their security is not fully guaranteed. Many Copts, in particular, are made to feel like aliens in their own country. This marginalization is further compounded by sectarian violence and hatred.”

Egypt’s minister of state for parliamentary affairs, Mufid Shehab, said that the investigation into the attack revealed “no religious motivations” whilst the Speaker of the Egyptian parliament, For Fathi Surur, said “one isolated incident should not be taken as proof of a religious conflict.”

It was not until 24 February that the public prosecutor ordered the release of nineteen of the detainees, fifteen of whom were Copts. Some of them alleged mistreatment during their detention.

The names and ages of the Nag Hammadi martyrs are Mina Helmy Said (16), Bishoy Farid Labib (16), Dina Hamalni (17), Boula Atef Yassa (18), Abanoub Kamal Nashed (19), Ayman Zakaria Louka (25), Rafik Refaat William (28) and Zakaria Toma (29).

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