The family of a Coptic Christian soldier who died last month on his first day at work – in the same regiment where another Copt died in mysterious circumstances in November 2015 – say he was murdered because of his Christian faith.
Having just completed his army training, 22-year-old Joseph Helmy reported for duty at Al-Salaam Special Forces unit (on the Cairo-Ismailia desert road) at 2pm on 19 July. Six hours later, he was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Army officials claimed he died following an epileptic fit, during which he hit himself repeatedly, but his family says he had no history of seizures and that his whole body was covered in bruises. A hospital report said the injuries he sustained pointed to a “criminal” assault.
Four soldiers have been arrested on suspicion of beating Helmy to death, though his family have stressed they want the men to be convicted of murder, not manslaughter, because they believe it was the soldiers’ intention to kill him. On 24 July, the soldiers, speaking in court, testified that they were acting under the instruction of their supervising officer, Captain Mohammad Turk, but he has not been charged due to a “lack of evidence”.
Helmy’s cousin, Youssef Youakim, told World Watch Monitor that other soldiers told him Captain Turk had taken issue with Helmy’s tattoos – of two Christian saints and a cross – and had asked him to remove them. The witnesses told Youakim that when his cousin said he couldn’t remove the tattoos, Helmy was first placed in solitary confinement, then beaten to death.
Helmy’s father, Reda, said the family were “shocked” when they saw his brutalised body. “His body had numerous wounds and bruises in various places – below the neck, chest, sides, abdomen, genitalia, knees, feet – and bad injuries on his back, indicating that he had been dragged along the ground,” he said.
“When Joseph joined the military, our family were very worried about him and afraid that he would be killed in a terrorist operation by ISIS, as we hear about many attacks against military and police soldiers taking place daily. But my son wasn’t killed by ISIS terrorists. He was killed by terrorists inside the state institution, who target our sons because of their religious identification.”
The priest at the family’s church in Kafr Dawish village, in the Beni Suef Governorate south of Cairo, paid tribute to his former church member. “Joseph was a very good young man,” Fr Hatour Boushra told World Watch Monitor. “He was very modest, honest and loved by all. He had a strong relationship with God.”
Fr Boushra added that Helmy was to be married in October. “But now he is a bridegroom of heaven,” he said. “He went to a good place in Heaven, with Jesus Christ. We ask God to comfort all the members of his family and give them the patience and strength to bear the pain of his loss.
“The killing of Joseph isn’t the first incident like this in a military unit, but I hope it will be the last. He was targeted and killed by those criminals because of his faith in Jesus Christ, so our Church considers him one its martyrs. Jesus Christ reminded us: ‘I’ll send you as lambs among wolves’, so what is expected when a lamb enters a herd of wolves? They will prey on him.”
A lawyer acting on behalf of the family, Ramses Al-Nagar, pointed to the similarities between Joseph Helmy’s death and that of Bishoy Kamel, who died in November 2015 at the same unit.
“There are some terrorists in this unit who try to kill the conscripts because of their religious identification,” Al-Nagar told World Watch Monitor. “Clearly, no decisive action has been taken inside this unit since Bishoy was killed, to prevent any attack on a new Christian conscript.”
Joseph Helmy was buried in the family cemetery in Kafr Dawish on 21 July. Ten days later, the Commander of the Al-Salaam Special Forces unit, Ahmed Gamal, visited the family, offering his condolences and assuring them that “no-one is above the law in Egypt”.
Yonas Dembele, an analyst for the World Watch Research unit of the charity Open Doors, said: “This incident confirms reports about the abuse of Christians in the Egyptian Army and is an indication of the hostility and harassment Christians face in various sectors of Egyptian society. Although this is an extreme example, it is symptomatic of the overall vulnerability of Egyptian Christians to ill-treatment in different arenas. The fact that the authorities have arrested the [soldiers] is a very positive development. However, there is still the possibility that [they] will not be held accountable.”