Earlier this month, a young Christian boy was kidnapped in Upper Egypt, before being released 12 days later after the payment of a hefty ransom.
Anthonius Farag, 13, was snatched outside his school early in the morning on April 5, in the village of Mansheyyit Manbal, off Matay (230 km south of Cairo). His kidnappers released a Muslim child after identifying his religion by his name, but sped away with the Christian boy.
The latest case is not isolated. According to the Coalition of Coptic Egypt (CCE), a Coptic advocacy group, the Upper Egyptian province of Qena alone saw no less than 72 cases of kidnappings, extortion and related violence against Copts in the period from 2011 to 2014, the most recent figures it has. Those targeted for kidnapping ranged from children to the elderly.
How the kidnapping happened
“At 06:35 a grey Kia, plate number 43789, stopped in the vicinity of the school and my shop,” said a local shop-keeper, who, conscious of his own safety, did not wish to be named.
“One of four individuals in the car walked up to me, claiming they were looking for black market fuel. I said I couldn’t help them with that. As soon as he had left, I heard noise outside the school, and shots were fired in the air by one of the four in the car. They soon sped away after they had bundled Anthonius into their car,” he told World Watch Monitor.
Mansheyyit Manbal is a predominantly Christian town of 12,000 inhabitants. Many of the inhabitants have relatives working overseas, hence the impression among nearby villages that it is a ‘rich’ Christian town.
“My son, Kyrellos, was standing with both fellow pupils Anthonius and Mohamed when one of the kidnappers approached them,” a Christian parent, Eid Yonan, said.
“[The kidnapper] inquired about their names. They let go of Mohamed, but gripped hold of Kyrellos and Anthonius.” Both names are clearly identifiable as Christian.
“My son managed to escape, while other boys started screaming. One of the kidnappers shot rounds in the air to disperse the crowd, as the others quickly pushed Anthonius into the car and fled,” added Yonan.
Shortly after, the kidnapped boy’s father, Nawwar Farag, alerted the police about what happened at the school, which serves students from the town beside other students from nearby villages.
Three days after the kidnapping, Farag received a call demanding a ransom of two million Egyptian Pounds (EGP) – over 225,000 USD – in return for his son. Farag had little trust in police assurances that they had the kidnappers’ phone tapped.
Police are not there. They see no evil, they hear no evil
“‘The police won’t help you,’ the abductors said when they called again April 12,” Farag recalled. He agreed with the kidnappers on a sum of 300,000 EGP ($34,000 US) – over 300 times an agricultural worker’s monthly wages – which was all he as a poor farmer could raise, relying on a collection from Christians who earned more.
The drop-off arrangement went as planned on April 17, and soon after Anthonius was found, having made his way to a nearby village after being left on a deserted road.
“I was kept in a dark room, with my blindfold removed only when they offered me something to eat,” Anthonius told World Watch Monitor, recalling his ordeal, which included beatings and questionings about his father’s financial situation.
Meanwhile, the town church was earnestly praying, while other inhabitants demonstrated, and parents stopped sending their children to school.
Local police said ransom money was found with members of the gang and returned to the family. According to the police, the gang had specialised in kidnapping members of wealthy families and operated in areas of Minya and Asyut.
Anthonius’s kidnapping follows numerous cases of Copts targeted for extortion, with rescue efforts often hampered by police inadequacies or unwillingness.
“For years the Copts of Nag Hamadi [in Qena] have been pleading for help against kidnappings, but no one seems to care,” said Nahed Cherubim, a local CCE coordinator, referring to the Upper Egyptian town whose cathedral was attacked on the eve of Coptic Christmas 2010, resulting in nine deaths.
“Since the 25th January revolution (which ousted former president Mubarak in 2011), kidnappings have become more common in Upper Egypt, where relatively more Christians live… Families pay anywhere from EGP 250,000 to seven million to free their loved ones.”
Minya (250 km south of Cairo) is another province that has in recent years gained notoriety for the large number of Copts snatched for ransom.
Amir Gamal, a Christian air force conscript from Beni Mazar, Minya, was set free on March 4, 2016, after his family paid EGP 140,000 (over $15,000 US) to redeem him.
Amir B.M., a child of five, was released by his kidnappers in October 2015, after the payment of EGP 45,000, reported Egyptian newspaper Veto.
The child, likewise a Christian, was reported kidnapped and returned, to the Samalot police, in Minya.
Mina Thabet, a Minya equality activist decried the resurgence in kidnappings, describing them as a “clear drain on the Christians’ financial resources.”
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, insists the kidnappings are a ‘phenomenon’, blaming the lack of security for the increase in incidents.
In a phone call with the Egyptian satellite channel ONTV, he said that the kidnapping of Copts and the attacks against their possessions has increased greatly since the June 30, 2013 mass protests which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.
Ibrahim refuses to describe these attacks as individual incidents.
“After a brief lull, kidnappings are back in force. The cases are to the tune of a case each week, or two weeks, in some places of Upper Egypt. Most victims are Copts,” Ibrahim told World Watch Monitor.
What do you expect us to do? Fend for yourselves
Ehab Karam, a dentist, was killed on 23 September 2014 while on his way home in Asyut City (390 km south of Cairo) from his private clinic in nearby Badari.
According to Christian website “Light and Dark,” his wife said the couple had earlier repeatedly informed the police about the threats against her husband, for refusing to pay protection money.
“What do you expect us (police) to do? Fend for yourselves,” was what she and other relatives were told, despite filing several complaints.
Earlier, in 2014, Egyptian newspaper al-Fagr claimed a ‘gang’ had imposed ‘protection money’ on close to 500 Coptic families in the villages of Asyut, listing names of victims and sums of money paid.
The paper said those refusing to pay had been told they “would either be killed, kidnapped, or forced to stay indoors.”
Al-Mogaz, a mainstream Egyptian media outlet, noted the targeting of Christians when reporting the arrest of members of a ‘gang’ on March 7, 2015. This ‘gang’ appears to have been centred on the town Sahel Selim in Asyut, Upper Egypt (400 km south of Cairo).
However, the targeting was portrayed more through the prism of criminality than as a religious hate crime.
“Security authorities are aware of such incidents, but they don’t seem to do much,” said local pastor Kameel Masoud of Sahel Selim Evangelical church at the time of the arrests.
Emad Lotfi, a local Copt, was also quoted as saying “We have to pay protection money–jizya, the criminals and extremists call it — or suffer increasingly from kidnappings and extortion.”
“It’s almost an Islamic mini-state where we live, reminiscent of historic persecutions”, he said.
The Damians’ case
Emad and Medhat Damian, cousins, were among Christians pressured to pay hefty sums of money to a particular person in the same town of Sahel Selim,
Egyptian satellite channel ONTV’s ‘Manchette’ talkshow interviewed their relative, Essam on Aug 24, 2014, who said:
“My brothers Emad and Medhat didn’t submit to the demand for payment. After they reported the extortion by Ashraf Hillaka (the alleged extortioner) the police told them not to worry and not to pay.
“Next day, Ashraf calls them and again demands the money. Emad again refuses and reports this as well to a senior local police officer (name and rank stated), who again assures him.
“Ashraf arrives approximately 45 minutes later and is furious, having been informed by the police that they had reported him. He came and killed both my brothers right in their bedroom in the home where they were staying. He killed them both ‘so that people will know and fear,’ he said….
“The police didn’t even come to collect the dead bodies.”
“Twenty days later, with the authorities doing nothing, the demand (on other Christians) rises steeply from EGP 10,000 to a million. More than 250 victims had to pay sums ranging from EGP 50,000 to 600,000 each, according to ability. Some are (well-to-do) doctors, others are poor people,” Essam stated on the widely watched Egyptian private channel.
“Police are not there. They see no evil, they hear no evil.”
“The culprit is known by name. Officers know him,” he said speaking of the double murder, which had happened almost a year before the TV appearance, on 10 September 2013.
Other cases in NE Egypt
Targeted violence against Copts has also occurred elsewhere in the country.
In a two-year period to July 2015, CCE stated that “127 Coptic families were forced to leave Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and al-Arish after a rash of attacks” plaguing the Egyptian north-eastern Sinai Peninsula where an apparent Islamist insurgency has been taking place.
“Christian homes were singled out, with threats of slaughter against kidnapped victims,” al-Masry al-Youm quoted CCE as saying.