Religious Freedom in a moderate Muslim, pro-Western country
Egypt: Keeping the Copts Subjugated
On 11 May, Muslims in the village of Bimha (or Bamha) in Ayat district (around 70 kilometres south Cairo) left their mosques after Friday prayers, armed and zealous for jihad against the indigenous Coptic Christian community and their solitary, partially built church.
The violent Muslim pogrom in Bimha bears the same features of other anti-Christian pogroms of the past decade. These familiar elements indicate that the security situation for Egypt’s indigenous Copts (who are Christian)is growing increasingly tenuous. For every time violence is rewarded with impunity it is emboldened.
As with other Muslim pogroms over the past decade, the pogrom in Bimha was premeditated, organised, very violent and perpetrated not by members of militant organisations (“extremists” and “outsiders”) but by local “ordinary” Muslims who had been incited in local mosques during Friday “prayers” to wage jihad and terror against their Christian neighbours in order to ensure their subjugation.
As with other pogroms over the past decade, Egyptian security forces were at best tardy, and at worst complicit and actively involved in the violence; and the imposed settlement was designed to appease Muslims, not secure justice or true and lasting peace. The “reconciliation” agreement of Bimha disregards the Christians’ legal and human rights, advancing only their status as “dhimmis”.1
The tragedy in Bimha takes Egypt another step backwards into religious apartheid as it further reinforces Egypt’s indigenous Christian Copts not as equal citizens, but as a subjugated people – dhimmis. It also presents Egyptians with yet another precedent which demonstrates that Copts (Egypt’s remnant indigenous peoples, the descendants of the Pharaohs, Christians for nearly 2000 years) can be terrorised, robbed and killed with impunity.
MUSLIMS RAMPAGE AFTER FRIDAY PRAYERS
Despite the fact that the Christians of Bimha had been threatened on the Thursday and had alerted the police that an attack might be launched after Friday prayers, security was not tightened. Al-Ahram reports:
Observers have claimed that tardy responses are typical of the security forces’ strategy, which seems to involve a wait-and-see approach to sectarian violence, after which they move in, but only after the violence has abated. Then, they begin to attempt to clean up the mess.2
A report by Free Copts paints a more serious picture:
Bamha’s Christians were shocked to discover that electricity, water supplies and phone lines were cut starting at 11:00 am [Friday morning], in spite of the police officials’ knowledge of the expected riots. The police and security forces only acted after the burning and destruction of the Christians’ properties ended. They blocked the only bridge that leads to Bamha and established a cordon around the village, preventing journalists and correspondents from reaching it to cover the situation. While Muslims are free to dwell across the village, a curfew has been imposed on the Christians, who are either forced to stay inside their homes, or to remain on the streets in front of their destroyed houses.3
Al-Ahram is unequivocal about this being a premeditated act:
The sectarian violence that erupted on Friday in the village of Bimha, in the Ayat district 70 kilometres south of Giza, seemed less a spontaneous outburst fuelled by wrangling among villagers than a premeditated act. Pamphlets had been distributed throughout the village before a mob, armed with everything from machetes to containers of kerosene, ran amok through the village. Within 40 minutes, 36 houses belonging to Christians had been burned and seven shops looted. Ten villagers were in hospital, two in a critical condition. At the time of going to press 35 alleged perpetrators were being questioned while another ten remain at large. A Christian man was subsequently detained, charged with throwing a plastic bag filled with inflammable liquids into a Muslim prayer area on Sunday.
Pamphlets distributed ahead of the violence called on Muslim villagers who wanted to ‘protect’ their religion to gather after Friday prayers, in order to stop the construction of a church in their village. The pamphlet included the rumoured location of the church and concluded by saying that the time to act had come: ‘there must be no more laxity, no more laziness … it is necessary that every Muslim protects his religion otherwise all is lost.’
Al-Ahram spoke with local Copt Raouf Abdallah, who was working in his fields when he heard women screaming in the village. He ran to his brother’s house but was restrained by two Muslim men while his home was looted and then torched.
The mob, said Abdallah, comprised all age groups, from the very young, to elderly men. ‘The ghafar [local guards] were also among rioters, they used their rifles to whip people,’ he says … He also reports that in some incidents, Muslims tried to protect the property of their Christian neighbours.
Free Copts adds:
Copts accuse the village’s mayor, as well as the member of the Egyptian parliament Ali el-Saudi, of promoting these attacks against Christians and by boasting about preventing Copts from extending and renovating their church.
It is noteworthy that Ali el-Saudi was also accused by the Copts of the Wassef Ghali village to have encouraged the attacks that took place in their village a year and half ago, and which left many Christians injured.
THE CHURCH OF SAINT THEODORE
The Muslim violence against the Christians of Bimha was supposedly in defence of Islam, which was allegedly under immense and imminent threat on account of a church – the Church of St Theodore – Bimha’s half-built solitary church in this village of 13 mosques.
Bimha’s Christian families had long gathered in the home of fellow congregation members Atif and Arian Youssef in order to worship. Following negotiations between the [Muslim] clergy and security forces, it was agreed that a place of worship could be built, though without any domes or crosses which might anger the local community. After the first floor of the building was completed in 2005, construction was halted by security officials after complaints raised by local residents.
Subsequently a compromise was reached, with Christians allowed to pray in their old place of worship, the home of Atif and Arian Youssef. To compensate the two congregation members, whose home would henceforth be a dedicated space for worship, Atif was to receive money and land, while Arian opted to finish the church’s partially constructed building and make it his home.
According to Al-Ahram, during the Friday 11 May rampage some 2,000 people converged on the partially constructed building and attempted to demolish it.
According to Free Copts, the security forces have since circulated a fabricated story, claiming the Copts were attempting to enlarge the church complex over a disputed piece of land.
The Copts, however, reject this version of the story, insisting that the land is by no means disputed, and that it belongs to the church. Furthermore, the Copts of the village of Bamha accuse the Egyptian police of faking this story in order to cover up the human rights abuses that took place against the village’s Christians.
‘RECONCILIATION’ ISLAMIC STYLE
The most soul-destroying aspect of this saga might be the subsequent ‘reconciliation’ event held on Wednesday 16 May in the Ayat Sporting Club. Justice and rule of law were irrelevant and the Copts were pressured, under the shadow of terror, to submit to unreasonable and unjust terms.
Manar Ammar, writing in Cairo for All Headline News (AHN) reports:
Fifty Muslim sheikhs from the Ministry of Religious Affairs shook hands and smiled at 50 Coptic priests Wednesday in Ayat, about 30 minutes south of Cairo … Security forces were heavily present at the session.4
AHN reports that a reconciliation committee ordered that the village’s Muslim elders pay compensation to the church. However Coptic leaders, reluctant to accept any money from Muslims that could be used as leverage against them at a later date, declined to accept compensation.
‘Three people from each side sat together and calculated that the losses incurred by Christian villagers amounted to LE500,000. Then Father Hanna Makin, the parish priest, announced that the families concerned would waive their claims as a gesture of good will,’ said Ali El-Soudi, Ayat’s representative in the People’s Assembly. The delegates also resolved that Bimha’s Christian community should continue to worship in the homes of Atif and Arian Youssef as happened in the past.5
According to Al-Ahram,
The majority of Bimha’s Christians say they support the decision of the church leadership not to accept compensation. ‘How can I accept money from someone who beat me and burned my house? It would be like being paid for the abuse. At the end of the day we all live together and we will continue to do so for generations to come.’5
The Copts also had to agree to not press charges against their attackers. Al-Ahram reports:
‘Our Christian brethren have forfeited their complaints in the spirit of forgiveness, and we will take steps to release 20 detained Muslims’, said El-Soudi, who also gave assurances that all criminal charges would be dropped in order to pacify the village further.
As noted by Nabil Abdel-Fattah, deputy director of Al-Ahram’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, this is no way to handle sectarian conflict. ‘It [a local “reconciliation” effort whereby disputes are settled by elders and community leaders in a way that lacks due legal perspective and simply reflects the balance of power on the ground] effectively prevents the implementation of the rule of law.’ Abdel-Fattah insists wrong-doers must be held legally accountable if others are to be deterred from taking similar actions.5
According to AHN, the Copts accepted the deal because, in the words of Annabious Jacoub, the high priest of Ayat’s Church of the Virgin Mary, ‘… they are afraid to be called the starters of sectarian tensions.’6
The Catholic News Agency comments on research that clearly demonstrates how serious and persistent the persecution of Egypt’s indigenous Coptic Christians has been over the last four decades.
The Ibn Khaldoun Research Center [which is headed by the human rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim] has documented over 120 major attacks on the Copts during this period. Another study estimated that over 4,000 Copts were killed or injured in this period. They have also suffered material losses in the tens of millions of dollars.7
The primary perpetrators of violence against Copts used to be militants from Islamic organisations seeking the establishment of an Islamic state. Their strategy was to use terrorism to extract political concessions from the government. During the last decade however, the trend has been for attacks to be incited in the mosques and perpetrated by ‘ordinary Muslims’ who have become more and more intolerant and hostile as radicalisation and Islamic zeal have increased. Along with mosque sermons, media and the education curriculum are also sources of radicalisation and incitement.
Researchers believe the violence takes place under the influence of hate propaganda emitted through the media, the education system and mosque preaching. They report that Egyptian authorities have yet to adequately punish a single Muslim perpetrator.7
‘We ask all freedom-loving governments, Human Rights organizations and individuals of the world to intervene on behalf of the Coptic Christians of Egypt,’ said the Coptic Christians’ press statement. ‘The reprehensible failure of Egypt to guarantee religious freedom, justice and accountability towards the Copts simply amounts to an invitation to continue the same (violence) against them in the future.’8
And according to Free Copts, Muslims have warned Bimha’s Christians that ‘what is to come will be much worse’.
- The original link (to www.dhimmi.com) is no longer operative.
- “Fanning the flames”, Al-Ahram, 17-23 May 2007, Issue No. 845.
- “Another episode of attacks against Copts in Egypt”, Free Copts, Saturday, 12 May 2007. This report includes the names of those Copts hospitalised, and the names of those Muslims the Copts accuse of being the instigators and organisers of the violent rampage.
- “Muslims, Copts Hold Reconciliation Session Over Sectarian Clashes”, by Manar Ammar, Cairo, Egypt, All Headline News (AHN), 19 May 2007.
- “Damage limitation”, Al-Ahram, 24-30 May 2007, Issue No. 846.
- Photographs taken in the aftermath can be viewed at: www.flickr.com/photos/norayounis/sets/72157600211845855/.
- “Egypt: Coptic Christians Call for End of Religious Persecution”, by the Catholic Information Service for Africa, allAfrica.com, 25 May 2007, Cairo.
- “Protect Us, Say Egyptian Christians”, Assyrian International News Agency.
Elizabeth Kendal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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