Baby Mohrael before she was kidnapped and killed. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Baby Mohrael before she was kidnapped and killed. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Egyptian police have charged a Coptic mother with the murder of her newborn baby, though she says her baby was killed by intruders who entered her home and took her baby from her arms.

Azza Gamal, 27, was home alone with her two-year-old twin girls Mariam and Martha, and baby daughter Mohrael, on the evening of 7 September. Her husband, Nour Bakhit Khalil, 30, had gone to visit his sister, who lives nearby, when he heard his wife scream.

The Khalil family live in a house on the outskirts of the village of Barba in Egypt’s Asyut governorate. They live in the western part of the village, bordering a cemetery and are surrounded plants. The house is small, with an unfinished upper floor, and a ground floor that contains a hall, kitchen, toilet and two rooms.

Speaking to World Watch Monitor, Azza explained that when her husband left to visit his sister, Azza locked the door. She only opened it again when she heard what she assumed to be her husband knocking on the door. In front of her, however, stood three masked men wearing galabiyas (full-length gowns) and a woman in a black abya (a robe-like dress) and niqab (a face-veil covering all but the eyes) who pushed her inside, grabbing the baby from her arms. They then beat her, shouting “kafirs” (“infidels”) and fled, taking the baby with them.

Barba village is in Asyut governorate in Upper Egypt. (World Watch Monitor)

Upon hearing his wife screaming, Nour ran home to see what had happened and was told that his daughter, Mohrael, had been kidnapped.

“I immediately went to the police station to report the kidnapping of my daughter,” he told World Watch Monitor. “They asked me to fetch my wife and our ID cards and then to come back to file a report. None of them went back with me to investigate the matter or search for my daughter.”

When Nour arrived back at his house, he received the news that his daughter had been found, with her throat slit and her body dumped among the plants just 10 meters from their home. He returned to the police station, this time with his wife, to report on what he had seen. The police started an investigation and promised they would do their best to find and arrest the perpetrators.

‘Psychological problems’

However, four days later, on 11 September, the police came back and raided their home.

“The officers slapped my wife in the kitchen and said that she had killed her daughter and arrested her,” Nour explained. “They alleged that my wife suffers from psychological problems because of her desire to have a male rather than a female child, as she [already] has two girls. Allegedly she [also] killed Mohrael because I dislike having girls and wanted a boy instead of this girl.”

“We are simple people, we had no enemies, and there isn’t any trouble between us and anyone in the village,” Nour said.

As for his wife of three years being charged with the murder of his daughter, Nour called that “false, irrational and unreasonable”.

“My wife is a very good woman. She is a religious person who has a strong relationship with God and could not do something like killing her daughter,” he said. “She and I were very happy when God blessed us with this little girl. Mohrael was very beautiful and cute and a great gift from God to us and we loved her so much. Azza stayed up every night to take care of her, playing with and nursing her. How then could she kill her? I also haven’t seen any bad behaviour from [my wife’s] side since we got married. She treats me well, is very humble and loves me and our daughters so much, especially the new baby. As for me, I wasn’t angry because my wife had a girl. On the contrary I love the girls and I was very happy when my wife gave birth to Mohrael. Saint Mary was a girl. Boys and girls are gifts from God and none can object this gift.”

History of harassment

Father Philemon Abdallah Mashreqi. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Father Philemon Abdallah Mashreqi. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Nour and Azza are part of Barba’s Mar Girgis Coptic church. Their priest, Fr. Philemon Abdallah Mashreqi, told World Watch Monitor there is a history of harassment of Coptic Christians in the village.

“They are being targeted and there isn’t any protection from the police,” he said.

Just in the last couple of months there have been a number of burglaries of homes owned by Copts, as well as of the local Church of the Renaissance of Holiness, when the perpetrator was caught on camera but until now the police have not made any arrests. And then there was the “shop owned by a Christian man named Mohsen Rizk. He reported the burglary but the police did not do anything”, said Fr. Mashreqi.

Another kidnapping took place last month and involved a young Christian man called Awny Mousa. The priest said “his kidnappers contacted his family demanding ransom for his return. His family then headed to the police station, asking the police to help them, but the police didn’t do anything for them and they had to pay the required amount to see the release of Awny”. He said some Copts’ crops and livestock have also been looted.

Listing the various attacks, he said “the police’s indifference, inaction and complicity gives an opportunity for these criminals to continue with their aggressive acts against us. As long as no legal action is taken, these attacks will not end but increase over time. We see that we have no rights here and that the law does not apply”.

Raising the money

“Christians in the west of Barba village have been targeted by thugs and gangs since 2013”, said Rev. Ezzat Salib, pastor of the Protestant church in the village. “Many Christians have been kidnapped and their families had to pay these big amounts of money as ransom for releasing them. If the family is a simple family and doesn’t have the ability to pay the ransom, relatives and friends help and raise the money between them. These kidnapping cases happen repeatedly and are increasing because those kidnappers enjoy complete impunity.”

Meanwhile, Nour and Azza’s church has hired a lawyer on their behalf. Since the couple don’t have money to cover the legal fees, the church released a statement asking if “the people of our village will contribute even a small part to pay for these costs”.

Rev. Salib said it is obvious the attackers were familiar with this part of the village, where most of the residents are Christians, living on the outskirts, close to where the vegetation becomes thicker. “They knew what they were doing [and] planned for everything accurately as they chose the suitable time to break into the home,” he said. “It was about 9.30pm, [a time when] most of the villagers in Upper Egypt are asleep.”

It remains unclear who was behind the attack on the Khalil family, but this year Egypt’s Copts have frequently been targeted by Islamic extremists with links to the Islamic State group, which vowed to “wipe them out”. As World Watch Monitor has reported, IS has recently shifted its focus from the Sinai Peninsula towards establishing a foothold in Upper Egypt, an area said to be “marginalised” by politicians, lacking in security and in which many people are poor and uneducated.