Attacks and Discrimination against Egypt's Copts and the Ancient Churches of the Middle East

Feb 17, 2011 | Uncategorized

Today’s Attacks on Egypt’s Copts

by David Alton on Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 10:45pm

On December 30th in Baghdad at least two Christians were killed and nine wounded in a string of six attacks on Christian homes. The areas targeted were predominantly Christian areas, and the homes targeted were specifically Christian homes. The old year ended and the new one has opened with blood shed that tragically points to the systematic annihilation of the ancient churches of the Middle East.> </span></span><span
The appalling situation in Iraq – brought home to us by the 31st October attack against the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad in which 58 were killed – was commented upon over Christmas by Pope Benedict and by Dr.Rowan Williams. At the time of the October attacks in Baghdad the perpetrators also threatened violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christian communities.

That came to pass last night, on New Year’s Eve, in Alexandria. The violence against Egypt’s Copts has been intensifying – with hardly a murmur of protest. Unless urgent action is taken, Egypt’s Copts will be destined to suffer the same fate as Christians in Iraq.

The Alexandria attack sharply underlines the vulnerability of Egypt’s Christians. The bomb attack outside the al-Qidiseen church (“Church of the Two Saints”) took place as worshippers were leaving a midnight service to celebrate the New Year. According to the official figures at least 21 were killed and 79 were injured. The injured include eight Muslims. The church and a nearby mosque suffered extensive damage from the blast

Initially the authorities believed a car bomb was used, but now they believe a suicide bomber was responsible. The attack prompted angry clashes between Christians and local Muslims during which the mosque opposite the church was further damaged. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The attack has been widely denounced by political by religious leaders in Egypt. The al-Qidiseen church was one of three churches which were attacked in April 2006 by a man wielding a knife, killing one person and injuring 17 others.

These attacks are part of a worsening pattern which I have observed since the publication, in 1992, of my report for the Jubilee Campaign, on the discrimination faced by Egyptian Copts. Having also served as honorary President of The UK Coptic Association I have also seen regular reports of the worsening situation. It disturbs me greatly that there seems considerable global indifference to the escalating violence against the Copts.

Egypt’s Copts make up some 12 million from a population of 80 million Egyptians and they face major human rights violations and are being increasingly persecuted. It is hard to believe that this is happening to them in 21st Century Egypt, which prides itself on being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The events in Alexandria find an echo in the drive-by massacre of churchgoers leaving midnight mass on Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6, 2010, in  Nag Hammadi. Six Copts were killed and nine others were seriously injured. The year end with deadly violence in St. Mary and St. Michael’s Church,  in Giza  on November 24, 2010,  in which the State’s own forces opened fire on peaceful Coptic protesters,
In between those two incidents there were attacks on churches, collective punishment of Copts, abduction and forced Islamisation of Coptic minors by Muslims in collusion with State Security is also an increasing phenomenon. So, too, are demonstrations, which have been staged over fifteen consecutive weeks, by radical Islamists – demonstrations which have targeted the Coptic Church and its head, Pope Shenouda.
These demonstrations have been  fanned by radical Muslim clerics and the Egyptian media,  based on allegations that the church is  abducting Christian girls who converted to Islam  and locking them up in monasteries, and of stockpiling weapons in monasteries for later use against Muslims, espousing sectarian hatred and violence against the Copts.
On November 18th the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that “This kind of rhetoric goes too far and stokes the fire of extremists looking for ammunition to justify violent acts against religious minorities”..   USCIRF has placed Egypt on its watch list for religious freedom that requires close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government
The number of violations against the Copts for the year 2010 are not yet published, but, from January 2008 to January 2010, there have been at least 52 incidents of sectarian violence or tension—about two incidents a month—which have taken place in 17 of Egypt’s 29 governorates. These were the scene of violent incidents which were all waged by Muslims against Christians,  according  to a two-year study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR),   a reputable NGO, that monitors the situation of freedoms—especially religious freedoms—in Egypt:
The vast majority of such sectarian incidents were waged by Muslims against Copts, taking the form of “collective revenge” owing to an irrational conviction that all Christians should be made to pay for the mistake committed by a Christian in no way related to them.
The second pattern of collective revenge targets Christians who attempt to conduct religious rituals in a new church they build, or in an existing one which they restore or expand, or in a building they convert into a church, or again by holding prayers in an ordinary building or inside the home of one of them.
The situation is rejected not only by neighbouring Muslims, but also by representatives of the State, who refuse the gathering of Christians for prayer in one of their homes, and, according to the EIPR study, they retaliate by arresting the worshippers and questioning them.
Church building in Egypt is still restricted by the contemporary interpretation of the 1856 Ottoman Hamayouni decree, still partially in force, which requires non-Muslims to obtain a presidential decree to build new churches.
In addition, Ministry of Interior (MOI) regulations, issued in 1934 under the Al-Ezabi decree, specify a set of 10 conditions that the government must consider before a presidential decree for construction of a new non-Muslim place of worship can be issued. The conditions include the requirement that the distance that a church may be no closer than 100 meters (340 feet) from a mosque and that approval of the neighbouring Muslim community must be obtained before a permit to build a new church may be issued. Moreover, the State Security often imposes its authority, making the process difficult even after obtaining a presidential decree.
According to the US International Religious Freedom Report 2010 published on December 17, 2010, “The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year.”
There is no indication that Egypt’s political leadership, or the wider international community, has come to realise the need to address the “Coptic issue.” While the government makes great efforts to present to the outside world an optimistic picture of the situation of the Copts, it does little to address the reality.
Last week President Mubarak gave a speech regarding the laws in front of Parliament for this session. Once again, and for the 6th year running, the long awaited new law to deal with the regulation of church buildings was omitted.
Let me underline the nature of this serious situation by mentioning three recent violations:
1. Firing Live Ammunition at Coptic Protesters
On November 24, 2010, at the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mary and St. Michael’s, in Talbiya, Omraniya district of Giza province, which is still under construction, some 5000 security forces personnel opened fire, used tear gas and hurled stones on men, women, children who were present at the church grounds, in order to disperse them, halt construction and demolish the building. The Copts hurled stones at the forces.
The Coptic crowd, many bearing makeshift crosses, decided to approach the Giza governorate and to protest against what they saw as an unjustified attack against them. They were incensed that the problem had appeared to have been resolved as the governor had sent his secretary to the congregation on the previous evening advising them that the governor has approved the building to be a church.
The clashes resumed in front of the Giza governorate building, where the angry protesters also felt deceived by the governor. They hurled stones at the building facade and at parked vehicles, while security forces opened fire again on them. Some news sites circulated news that security sources explained the unusually harsh response they used against the Coptic demonstrators by claiming the Copts had hurled Molotov cocktails at the Giza governorate headquarters, a claim which eye-witnesses categorically deny.
The clashes resulted in the death of three Coptic men from bullet wounds and a four year old child from tear gas being thrown inside the chapel.  More than 79 Copts were injured, suffering mostly gunshot wounds, some severely, and 157 people including women were arrested randomly from the streets. In addition 22 teenagers and children as young as 9-years old were also arrested.  The detainees were charged with 14 charges which ranged from demonstrating illegally, carrying white weapons and blocking public roads; to the intentional destruction of public property for a terrorist purpose and the attempt to kill police officials. Such charges carry sentences of 15 years imprisonment.
It transpired that the building had been licensed as a Church-owned-and-operated social services building but the Copts who had for years tried in vain to obtain licence to build a church—Egyptian law and regulations pre-condition almost prohibitive procedures for the licensing of new churches—were using it as a church. The building violation was exposed when they began to add a dome.
The Church Diocese in Giza issued a statement, saying “The Governor of Giza gave instructions to modify the services building to a church building, but a decision by the Chief of the District to halt construction and remove the irregularities angered the people, who congregated next to the building, fearing that the district authorities would cause damage to it, triggered the events and the clashes.”
Some 40 private and human rights lawyers were banned by security officials on orders of the General Prosecutor from attending interrogations of Copts before prosecution.
Injured detainees were shackled to their beds in hospital, or were sent to detainment camps before completing their medical treatment prompting an outcry from Egyptian NGOs.
NGOs in Egypt and abroad condemned the attack, and called on   Public Prosecutor to prosecute the security personnel responsible for the death and the injury of Coptic protesters.
November’s events were a serious escalation in the State’s treatment of its Christian citizens. This is not simply about social violence occasioned by the construction of a church, but, according to Hossam Bahgat, EIPR’s Executive Director, “rather security forces opening fire on protesters demanding their constitutional right to worship without arbitrary interference or discrimination.”
Meanwhile the Egyptian Attorney General under pressure by human rights organization and Pope Shenouda, who went into retreat to a monastery in protest, released 133 of the 157 detainees. However, no one was questioned over who was responsible for giving the shooting order.
Human rights advocates reported that this incident exemplified an increasingly prevalent pattern of governmental authorities detaining Copts following sectarian attacks and either holding them without charges or threatening false charges and a police record; the detentions serve as a tool to blackmail Coptic authorities to desist from demanding criminal prosecution of the perpetrators and to dissuade the victims and/or their families from seeking recourse in the judicial system for restitution of damages.
On December 10,  in an effort to end any hopes for the Coptic Christians  of using the Church of St. Mary and St. Michael’s in Talbiya for prayer services, the Giza Governorate converted overnight a house facing the church into a mosque, less than 100 metres away.
This kind of devious undertaking has often been used by State Security to stop any project for a church, in addition to deploying Muslims in the area to contest the presence of a church in their neighbourhood.
The church premises are now occupied by State Security to make sure that no one prays there, and judging from previous cases the church will remain closed.
The  Coptic Church filed a case against  the Giza Governorate on the basis that its decision to halt construction of the Church was illegal as the area where the church is built is not subject to any kind of building permissions, being some sort of shanty town:

2. Coptic Homes Torched
On November 15 , 2010  the village of al-Nawahid, in Qena province some 290 miles south of Cairo, a Muslim mob of nearly 1000,  set fire overnight to 22 houses belonging to Coptic Christians over rumours that  19-year-old Copt Hossam Noel Attallah and a 17-year-old Muslim girl, Rasha Mohamed Hussein had an affair.
They threw fireballs, gasoline and stones at Coptic homes and detonated Butane Gas cylinders. Christian-owned homes were looted and shops were broken into, plundered and burned. Cattle belonging to Copts were stolen, their fields and plants uprooted. There were no reported casualties.
An eyewitness who was himself beaten by Muslims said the mob blocked the fire brigade from reaching the burning homes and one fire engine arrived hours late. He also said that security forces went into the houses of Copts and arrested them.
Copts accused the authorities of severe inadequacy, because although being aware of the incident of the Copt and the Muslim girl, they only stationed three security cars at the entrances of the village. Ra’fat, head of Luxor EUHRO NGO reports that “When the security officers saw the large mobs entering the village from all sides and attacking it, they fled, leaving it unprotected to operations of terrorism, sabotage, arson and looting of Coptic property.” He added that security
forces were only guarding St. George’s Church.
The Chief Prosecutor went to survey the damage but refused to listen to any of the Coptic victims, speak to witnesses who saw the perpetrators or even to register the names of the accused.
It was reported that State Security forced thirteen Coptic families to sign papers stating the fire happened as an “Act of Fate” and was extinguished by security and the village Muslims. A Coptic victim poignantly asked “Have you ever heard of such humiliation?
“Whoever refused to sign was beaten up. We were afraid to be detained by security, so we signed”
As police decided it was an “Act of Fate”, they are not entitled to claim compensation, also none of the Muslim perpetrators were indicted. The Muslim girl was released after undertaking a medical exam which proved that she was still a virgin; the fate of the Coptic young man is unknown:

The examples of collective punishment of Copts which I have cited were repeated at:
1. Farshout, – where, in November a three day rampage against Copts occurred when 86 Coptic-owned properties were torched,  prompted by the alleged sexual assault of a Coptic man on a Muslim girl and at Nag Hammadi, after the Christmas Eve massacre of January 6, 2010, Muslim torched and looted in Bahgoura  43 homes and shops. events demonstrate how much Egypt’s Copts need our help. Write to your MP or to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, urging that more is done to provide security and protection and to promote repspect and tolerance.

Coptic tears
Copts under seige

On March 12  2010, a Muslim mob assaulted some 400 Christians during prayers in the church of the services building affiliated to the Coptic Church in Rifeyah, Mersa Matrouh, under the pretext that the Copts had carried out construction work without permission  from the authorities placing a fence around their newly acquired plot of land with a gate that would close a short-cut to the adjacent mosque
The mob, estimated to be between 2000-3000 of Bedouins and fanatical Muslim Salafis, hurled stones at the building. Four priests, the deacons and 400 parishioners were trapped for 14 hours inside the building until Security forces arrived from Alexandria and escorted the 400 terrorised Copts to their homes.
While the Copts were trapped, the mob moved on to other areas not protected by security, vandalizing and torching Coptic homes, shops, businesses and cars in the streets surrounding the services building.
Twenty-five Copts were seriously wounded, including women and children. Eighteen houses, twenty-two shops and sixteen cars were destroyed and burnt down.
The Reverend Matta Zakaria said that “The violence started after the Muslim evening prayer when the Mosque’s Imam, Shaikh Khamees, preached the need to fight the ‘enemies’, and said ‘we don’t want Christians to live among us.'”
The violence against Copts has been systematic. Now is the time to stand by them and to write to MPs and legislators, to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and to the Egyptian Ambassador urging toleration and respect, security and protection.

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