Eight Christian homes were attacked and an equal number of Copts were detained after Muslims in an Egyptian village went on a rampage following rumours of a house church being built.
The attack last week in Saft el-Khirsa (180km south of Cairo) trails more than a dozen others that have, over the past two months, made an already vulnerable community more nervous. Of those attacks, three have seen Copts injured and their properties vandalised in the wake of claims that churches were being secretly set up.
Egypt is yet to approve a common law granting churches the same building rights as mosques. Discussions to redress this imbalance have fruitlessly been going on since the 1970s.
In Saft el-Khirsa, Coptic homes and stores were pelted by angry crowds shouting “We don’t want a church”, and “No god but Allah, Christians the enemies of Allah”, according to local witnesses.
“You wish to cause mayhem by building a church and now you come back crying?”
“On Thursday 21 July, we received threats of an attack the next day” said Mahrous Ishak, a local Copt, to World Watch Monitor. “We told the police and national security, but they showed no interest saying ‘If an attack happens, call us then and we’ll come quickly'”.
“On Friday, during the Muslim prayers the loudspeakers suddenly fell eerily silent. Later, crowds filed out of mosques. One cleric was clearly seen directing groups of people in different ways towards Christian homes.”
Saft el-Khirsa, a village of some 12,000, is home to 70 Christian families. In a situation repeated across the country, the village is not served by a church, while ten mosques serve the Muslim community.
“Some were carrying gas canisters and rocks, while others had birdshot guns. They attacked the homes of Christians. Contents were vandalised, children were crying in panic amid the onslaught by hundreds of attackers,” added one source to World Watch Monitor.
Despite alerting the police to the threats a day earlier, no action was taken. When the police were called on the day of the attack, the chief constable said, “You wish to cause mayhem by building a church and now you come back crying?”
Christian victims detained for ‘state security’
The detailed accounts by local witnesses seem to follow the same script as previous incidents.
After police eventually put an end to violence, eight Copts, including some whose properties were vandalised, were rounded up and taken to custody. Ten Muslim attackers were also arrested.
“When we asked why they were detaining victims as well as perpetrators, they told us it was a matter of ‘state security’ and that’s how things are done,” said Ishak, an account confirmed by another witness who spoke days ago on an Arabic Christian satellite channel.
“One young man, Michael Ibrahim, went to the police station to complain about the attack. He was instead detained and no report was filed. He was told ‘Since you are here, you might as well stay here!'”
“When we asked why they were detaining victims as well as perpetrators, they told us it was a matter of ‘state security'”
In more legal discrepancies, lawyers were not allowed access to the detained Copts. Relatives were not informed of charges, if any, when they were presented to the prosecution “at 2am”.
To date, none of the Christians have been freed. On Saturday, 23 July, a ‘conciliation meeting’ was quickly arranged, where the matter was settled on conditions deemed unfair to Copts. No damages were awarded, while only a ‘community centre’ would be allowed in the village. “Christians cannot pray. They can only hold weddings and funeral gatherings,” said witnesses.
Two days before the latest incident, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church Tawadros II departed from his weekly service schedule to offer a prayer for “every family which has suffered a martyr”, while an outspoken bishop two weeks earlier said the land was “diseased with discrimination”.
In absence of a meaningful official response, Bishop Makarius tweeted reminding President Sisi his diocese of Minya – where nearly half the recent attacks have taken place – was part of the country he leads.
In the period since 25 January 2011 to date, from Sinai in the northeast to Luxor in the far south, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has counted 78 incidents where Copts were killed, nearly killed, injured, or repeatedly suffered material damages.
On Friday 20 May, a Copt grandmother was stripped naked in public view after her son was rumoured to have had an affair with a Muslim woman. Later her attackers were released “for lack of evidence”.
Copt MP Emad Gad had a more direct criticism of the authorities when he posted on social media calling the spike in attacks against Copts “a fiendish scheme orchestrated by State apparatus and institutions”. Having tried through the different echelons of power – from the Interior Ministry to the Parliament – both Christian and Muslim MPs, he said, have failed to even have the matter heard “in the House … while the scheme went ahead designed to break the Copts and humiliate them”.
The Church has recently indicated it had finally had enough of the extrajudicial recourse to ‘conciliation’ saying Copts are “pressured into” them, denying them proper restitution while failing to prevent a repeat of incidents.
Meanwhile, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in the UK warned last Friday (the same day as this latest attack) that Egypt “has become more vulnerable to a disturbing wave of radicalism“.
Why Egyptians oppose building of churches
Telling is a video that has been doing the rounds on social media by one influential Salafist cleric. On it, Sheikh Ahmed al-Naquib indicates all four schools of Sunni Muslim theology forbid building of churches.
“It is not permissible to build churches in the lands of Islam”
“It is not permissible to build churches in the lands of Islam. This is the unanimous agreement among all the Four Schools. It is the received position handed down to us by the Early Founding Figures [of Islam].”
The codes laid down by the ‘Four Schools’ are generally followed by Sunni Muslims – the majority of Egyptians being Sunnis – in matters ranging from personal hygiene to social dealings and political decisions.
Referring to Islamic jurisprudence formulated centuries ago, the cleric reiterated “It is forbidden to build churches in the lands of Islam. This holds true, even if the ruler allows otherwise.
“The late great scholar Al-Damanhuri, a former Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, at one time authored a book detailing the Sharia prohibition against churches being built in Egypt. He said – I quote – whoever judges that churches can be built in Egypt, even the ruler, ought to be quarantined and his judgement be held to no effect. This, of course, once Islam has consolidated its power.”
Going further, Naquib said on the video, “It is of no use saying it is [the Christians’] right, that they too have their own religion just as we have ours. Not so. Their religion is null. They say Christ is God, or Son of God. How could we permit them such a thing?
“You may say they share the land with us. No. Egypt falls under ‘the lands of Islam’.”