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Violence against Copts

Coptic Priest banned from village

The village of Upper Ezbet Dawoud Yousef is 200 kilometers south of Cairo, in the Minya Governorate, and has no church; so religious services for the eight hundred Coptic Christians have been performed on the street. Two years ago Father Estefanos Shehata, the local priest, converted a room in his home in the village – measuring a  hundred square metres -  into a prayer hall and applied to the state security for the necessary permit. Nothing happened so he pressed them for an answer. They told him that he needed to obtain ‘permission’ from the village Muslims. The State Security told him that they wanted to avoid problems in the village. Father Estefanos anticipated no problems as the Copts had always enjoyed good relations with the Muslim villagers whom they considered as their brothers. The local Muslims called a meeting with the elders of the neighboring villages, who “were extremely angry at my proposal and instead of giving their permission, they issued a Fatwa calling for my death. They told the Copts in the village that it takes just one bullet to get rid of me since there is no ‘blood money’ for killing a Christian. I have been banned from my village for over a month now, I cannot even go my mother.”

The Muslim elders also said that it is only through grace on their part that the Christians were allowed to go to the neighboring village to pray.” The nearest church is five kilometers in the village of El-Tayebah. He went on to express his dismay with his Muslims neighbors, asking “What harm is it to you if we have a hall? What harm is it to you if we build a church? This is one question. Secondly, why do we have to conduct a funeral in the street? Why do we have to celebrate weddings, with the bride and groom standing in the street? This is definitely not right. Why are Muslims angry when Christians want to pray?”

The Problem of Abu Fana

The attacks on the monastery of Abu Fana near Malawi in Minya province (see Glastonbury Review Nos. 116 & 117), which have persisted over the previous fourteen months, reached the final stage on 7 July 2009 when the adversaries from both sides visited the Minya prosecution office to withdraw their testimonies, accusing each other of reciprocal assaults.

The father of Khalil Mohamed, who was killed by ‘friendly fire’ admitted he could not vouch for sure that it was the Fawzy brothers who had killed his son, and the six monks who were seriously injured said the Arabs had been masked and it had been too dark a night to identify their attackers.

By withdrawing their testimonies it brings to a close the criminal case, since no incriminating evidence exists against any particular person. The state authorities quickly hailed this as a ‘reconciliation’ and expressed thanks to the State Security Investigation for their efforts to bring about rapprochement. Pope Shenouda III sent the brothers a message from Cleveland, Ohio, where he is on medical treatment. He congratulated them, their families and friends, and their lawyers on their release and the end of what he termed an extended painful experience.

However, the editor of the respected Coptic newspaper, Watani, Youssef Sidhom, expressed a contrary view, believing that the readiness of the authorities to close this file effectively ignored the right of the community to exact justice, penalised law breakers, and ensures that criminals are not accountable for  their crimes,

“The reconciliation scenario was skilfully woven so that all the parties involved would collaborate to dissipate the court case and delude justice, with the blessings of the authorities concerned. And now we have arrived at the happy ending, happily ever after. As for the community right to justice, the rule of law, and the security of ensuring that similar criminal acts can never go unpunished, all these were practically thrown to the wind.”

Coptic Church burnt down

Coptic Christians in the village of Ezbet Bassilios, Bani Mazar, 190 kilometres south of Cairo, applied and received a license for a church in 1979, but because of obstacles created by the State Security, it was never completed. It was closed in 1997 for security reasons, but through the continuous efforts of Bishop Athanasios of Beni Mazar to convince security that prayers in that Church do not pose a threat to the village or communal harmony, it was reopened for prayers on 3 July 2009 and consecrated it in the name of the Archangel Michael and St. Antony. However, later that day it was closed again by State Security ‘for security reasons and to avert a sectarian crisis,’ and placed under continuous guard.

Two eyewitnesses, 27-year-old Fulla Ramzy Asaad and her 80-year-old mother-in-law, named three Muslim village inhabitants Ahmed Abdelghani, Ahmed El-Qatawy and Eid Sayed Ahmad of torching the Church down at noon on 11 July 2009 after spraying it with kerosene. They “went inside the church from a back door, but came out from the front of the burning Church in full view of the security guards,” said an eye witness to Coptic News Bulletin. “Guards were there and just watched; when they heard explosions they went and stood far. They saw everything and did nothing, which is evidence of collusion.” The Fire brigade arrived two hours late, after the Church roof had completely collapsed, eyewitnesses said. “Only the holy alter was untouched by the fire.”

When Asaad and her mother-in-law went to the police station to file a report on the incident, and named the suspects, they were detained and threatened if they did not change their statements. Father Ibrahim Phillipos, the parish priest, said that the Security authorities were trying to falsely implicate a Copt, Reda Gamal Huzayin, for the arson attack. Muslim witnesses testified that they saw him standing in the vicinity, with a flask of gasoline nearby. Even though Huzayin had a strong alibi and was nowhere near the church when the fire erupted he was charged with setting it aflame. Incredibly, Asaad was charged with being an accomplice and torching the church with Huzayin.

Intrepid El-Gohary fights on

There have been some significant developments in the fight by Peter Athanasios, known by his Muslim name of Maher El-Gohary (see Glastonbury Review No. 117) to have his Egyptian Identity Card changed from Muslim to Christian.

On 13 June 2009, the Court of Administrative Justice, headed by Judge Hamdi Yassin Okasha, rejected two suits, by him against the President and others. The court based its ruling on several points, most prominently that “freedom of belief from the perspective of the Constitution must be understood in light of two things: firstly, that the Arab Republic of Egypt is not a wholly civil state, but rather a democratic, civil state in which Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic law are the primary source of legislation, and secondly, the principle of citizenship…and all this entails for the full, equal membership in the society for all citizens who live in the country in rights and duties, without the slightest discrimination based on arbitrary criteria such as religion or race…Hence, changing one’s religion is within the scope of freedom of belief. Whereas this does not create a problem in fully civil states, the situation is different in Egypt due to the significant legal consequences of changes in religion for family matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, which all differ depending on religion or confession.”

The court also addressed international conventions on rights and freedoms, noting that when Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and ratified by Egypt in 1982) “gave every individual the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the freedom to freely adopt any religion or faith and the freedom to manifest his religion….it recognized in part 3 of the same article the impermissibility of setting limits on a person’s freedom to manifest his religion or belief, except such limits prescribed by law and deemed necessary to protect public safety, public order, public health, public morals or the rights of others and their basic liberties.” The court stated that the Egyptian government had deposited reservations to the convention when ratifying it and stated that it would comply with it as long as it does not conflict with the judgments of Islamic law.

The production of a baptismal certificate by El-Gohary issued by a church in Cyprus on 20 September 2005 and a certificate showing he joined the Orthodox Coptic Church on 8 April 2009 were significant landmarks proving his Christian status. Previously converts have not been issued with certificates because the priests feared they would be targeted by the State Security. However, the court refused to recognise them and denied the church’s competence to issue such a document regarding conversion from Islam to Christianity saying, “If the patriarch [of the Orthodox Coptic Church] has the authority to clerically recognize those who practice religious rites, he has no authority to change a person’s religion by expelling an adherent of a particular faith from his religion in accordance with a religion over which he has no responsibility, even if it is the adherent’s wish, and bringing him into another religion over which he is responsible, as long as the law does not give him this authority.” Thus, the court concluded that although the text of Article 47 of the Civil Status Law allows conversions absolutely, the legal reality does not permit conversion from Islam to any other religion.

On 17 September 2009, State Security police officers at the Cairo airport prevented El-Gohary from travelling to China, after his passport was stamped with an exit visa and shortly before he boarded the plane. He was informed that a travel ban had been issued for him by an “executive” agency that was not identified; he was detained there for three hours. The next day El-Gohary filed a police report against the Prime Minister, the Interior Minister and the director of airport security. He asked for an investigation of the incident and compensation. When he tried to travel again on 22 September 2009; airport authorities once more banned him from travel and this time confiscated his passport.

Christian Conscripts in the Egyptian Army

Egypt maintains mandatory military service for males between the ages of eighteen and thirty. However, students may apply for postponement and males with no brothers, or those still supporting parents are exempted. By the age of thirty a male is considered unfit to join the army and pays a fine. Egyptians holding dual nationality are also exempted. The period of service ranges from fourteen to thirty-six months depending on education, with graduates usually serving a shorter time. Those who evade conscription by travelling overseas until they reach the age of thirty, are tried, fined and then dishonourably discharged. As this conviction stigmatises them as unpatriotic persons of “bad moral character” it prevents them from ever holding public office.

Christian conscripts are often vulnerable for enforced Islamisation and suffer mistreatment at the hands of radical Muslim officers if they are ill-educated and come from villages, mostly in Upper Egypt. Pressure to convert to Islam is common with those who resist suffering beatings, psychological harassment and torture, which is rarely reported by conscripts for fear of reprisals. Their families are poor and easily intimidated by the authorities should their sons be harmed and they have no understanding of how to contact human rights groups or the means to pursue their grievances further.

One such case was Hany Seroufim, a Coptic conscript serving in the Egyptian army in Aswan. Hany told his family that the unit commanding officer always humiliated and tortured him in front of  the other soldiers simply because he was a Christian. When asked blatantly to convert to Islam, Hany refused and warned him he would notify the military intelligence, to which the officer threatened Hany with revenge. Hany died suddenly  in August 2006, allegedly by accidental drowning in the Nile near his home town of Nag Hammadi. His whole body, however, was covered with marks of torture, including a cross crudely tattooed on his arm with a knife. Some four months later, Human Rights groups forced the state to perform an autopsy but the results proved inconclusive because of the lapse of time and the deterioration of the corpse.

A more recent case concerns Mubarak Masood Zakaria, a  22-year-old Coptic conscript from Deir Abu Hennes, Mallawi, in Al-Minya Governorate, who died in mysterious circumstances on 15 August 2009. Three days after his death the police in Mallawi summoned his father, to inform him of his son’s ‘sudden death’ from ‘natural causes,’ although the death certificate stated “cause of death still under investigation.” Permission for burial was granted although the family were not allowed to view the body beforehand. On their way to the church for the funeral ceremony, the odour from the corpse was so offensive that the family and some mourners decided to inspect the body before its burial. They discovered that it was riddled with bullets, his face was bruised and his abdomen was cut open and sewn.

The military prosecutor in Assiut summoned the father several days after the burial and tried to explain to him how his son shot himself during his sleep, with the weapon that was with him. Not surprisingly, the father suspected foul play, because his son was always complaining of ill-treatment by his superiors because of his religion.             Additionally, the family fears that the booming clandestine human organs trafficking in Egypt could have found a new source of supply in poor Copts serving in the Egyptian army. “Why was his abdomen cut open and sewn if no autopsy was carried out. I believe they admitted him to hospital for a few hours to examine the state of his internal organs for harvesting.”

The death of Mubarak leaves many unanswered questions, including the extent of collusion between the different authorities, including the prosecution, to cover-up the crime

Villagers Attack Mourners at Funeral

The village of Delga, Deir Mawas, Al Minya Governorate, some 350 km south of Cairo, has been described by His Grace Bishop Aghabus of Deir Mawas and Delga as “the most violent and the least safe” in the governorate. On 27 September 2009 Nayer Mansour Sahrab, a Muslim minibus driver, stabbed four Coptic Christians, killing one and seriously injuring the other three. After committing the crime he fled, but was later arrested.

The incident led thousands of angry Copts to rally in front of Deir Mawas Hospital – where the victims were taken – and demand an end to the government’s policy of indifference in dealing with Coptic issues. State Security forces.

Equally shocking, however, was the reaction of the village Muslims who attacked the Coptic mourners as they entered the village church for the funeral service of the victim Hanna and on their way out to bury him. “They were pelting them with stones, cheering and singing accompanied by drum beats and Muslim women were letting out the traditional celebration sound. Eyewitnesses reported that Copts were replying to Muslims chant of “Allah is Great” with “With our soul and our blood, we will defend our Cross.”

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