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Another Black Friday for Egypt’s Copts
Magdi Khalil

The assault on the Copts of the village of Bemha in al-Ayaat, Giza, on 11 May was the latest incident in a long series that goes back to the 1970s, when the Holy Bible Publishing House (Dar al-kitab al-Moqadas) in al-Khanka neighbourhood in Cairo was attacked and set on fire.
Since the Khanka incident—which took place on 6 November 1972, the Copts have been at the receiving end of attacks that number in the hundreds and vary in magnitude from minor harassment to major vicious assaults, with no end in sight.
The perpetuation of oppression is blamed on a multitude of factors that work together to feed the fires of violence, some related to societal issues, and others to State institutions and its executive, legislative and judicial powers. A sequence of events—where each act compliments the other—usually begins with an account that describes the incident or the attack perpetrated against the Copts, and ends with a court ruling that encourages, rather then abates, the perpetuation of this criminal behaviour. In between the beginning and the end of this vicious cycle, the shameful transgressions bring to the surface the strong undercurrents of injustice, discrimination and oppression.

Incident Description
There is no ambiguity about the nature of the incidents in question, starting with Khanka, and until Ayaat; they all fall under a distinct category of hostile attacks against non-violent citizens and criminal offences that are, essentially, an assault on the law and social peace.
However, for more then three decades, the Egyptian media’s portrayal of those incidents was tainted by deliberate ambiguity and deception, taking the form of adamant denials in some cases, total disregard in others, and worst of all, deceit and unscrupulous lies. The denial champions are adamant that there are no prejudices against the Copts, hence no problem to be addressed; the incident is portrayed as an isolated case and fully blamed on a mentally unstable individual. The government-owned media mostly ignores the issue, and either refrains from mentioning the incident altogether, or at best treats it as insignificant news that only merits a few lines in a back page. Coverage in many outlets is misleading and confusing, giving a muddled account that leaves the reader unable to tell the aggressor from the victim, and brandishing clichés such as sectarian strife, quarrels, sectarian clashes or disputes between Muslims and Copts, or even the pointless “an unfortunate incident”. Such expressions were chosen knowingly to convey a misleading image of the attack, assigning equal blame to both parties, and ignoring the fact that Copts are a minority and hold little power in face of the overwhelming Muslim majority. Some media outlets sunk as low as spreading despicable lies, claiming that the Copts provoke the Muslim majority, and blaming the extremists on both sides, since according to their twisted logic, the Copts who object to an injustice are counted among extremists.
A serious resolution of a conflict requires, at the very least, a correct identification and accurate description of the problem, to be carried out on the legal, social, security and informative levels. Sadly, attacks on Copts were deliberately misrepresented to give false, misleading impressions, and the media’s portrayal could only be described as dishonest, unprofessional, biased and unpatriotic.

The Friday scenario
In his antagonistic book “The national group, isolation and integration,” Tariq al-Bishri wrote: “the Egyptian Muslim receives his religious education publicly whether in schools or mosques ... But we do not know what is said about Islam and Muslims in churches, or about Arabs and Arab nationalism either”.
The answer can be found in the dozens of attacks against Copts which took place on a Friday and followed an almost identical scenario. A rumour is spread, a leaflet is circulated among the crowds calling them to Jihad, and speaking of the triumph of Islam and Muslims and the due punishment of infidels. The crowds who listen to the fiery sermons of the Friday Prayers are incited to hatred and violence, and pushed to the edge; they rush out to engage in a mad round of killing, pillage, and destruction, preying on peaceful citizens. The angry crowds may number hundreds or sometimes thousands, as was the case in Alexandria in October 2005. Ironically, at the conclusion of such incidents we get to listen to the rabble-rousers, who called for Jihad on the top of their lungs, as they now lament the “sedition” and curse those who stirred it!! Meanwhile, the Copts continue to mourn their losses, as they wait fearfully for the next attack.
The following incidents were the outcome of this dreadful Friday scenario:
• Friday 8 September 1972: following Friday Prayer, the rabble set on fire the building of the Orthodox association “Al-Nahda” in Damanhur, Beheira.
• Friday 2 March 1990: the rabble engaged in an extensive round of killing, burning, and pillage in the town of Abu-Qurqas in Minya. Dozens of houses, shops, and cars were set aflame, as was the YMCA, the Salvation of Souls (Khalas al-Nofous) society and the Catholic church of St George in Beni-Ebeid, Abu-Qurqas.
• Friday 11 March 1999: Copts in Alexandria were attacked with machine guns, resulting in the death of Father Shenouda Awad and his wife, Dr Kamal Rushdi, Mr Alfonse Rushdi, Mr Sami Abdu, Mr Boutros Bishay, and the child Michael Sabri.
• Friday 16 March 1990: an explosive device was thrown at St Mary’s Church in Ain-Shams, Cairo.
• Friday 20 September 1991: assailants armed with swords and clubs pillaged, destroyed and plundered Christian-owned residences and shops in al-Munira al-Gharbiya in Imbaba, Cairo.
• Friday 19 June 1992: Extremists in the village of Sanbu, Dairut, went on a rampage, killing three Copts and destroying 64 houses and shops owned by Copts. Eight shops were burned to the ground.
• Friday 16 October 1992: Extremists charged into Coptic property in the city of Tama, in Sohag and, for the duration of three hours, destroyed and plundered, murdering two Copts and burning a church to the ground.
• Friday 5 March 1993: the al-Qoussiya assault that cost Coptic lives and property.
• Friday 5 March 1993: Extremists murdered Adel Bushra, a Coptic resident of the village of Mir in Assiut, on his way home from church.
• Friday 11 March 1994: Extremists committed a massacre outside al-Muharraq monastery in Assiut, killing two monks and three Christian guests.
• Friday 3 February 1997: after Friday Prayer, a rabble attacked Coptic citizens in the village of Manafis, in Abu-Qurqas, destroying and plundering.
• Friday 14 February 1997: Extremists murdered three Copts in the village of Kom al-Zaheir, Abu-Qurqas.
• Friday 7 March 1997: After Friday Prayer, a rabble attacked a church in the village of Temsahiya in Assiut. They tore down the Cross and then turned their attention to Christian-owned homes and shops causing severe damages.
• Friday 14 August 1998: Extremists murdered two Copts in al-Kosheh in Sohag. the Copts were later accused of torturing and killing them, and the conclusion of the incident is by now familiar.
• Friday 31 December 1999: al-Kosheh horrific attack started on that day and went on for three days, ending on 2 January 2000, spreading terror in the village, and resulting in the death of 21 Copts and the utter destruction of dozens of Christian-owned houses and shops.
• Friday 7 November 2003: A rabble attacked Christian-owned shops and property in the village of Gerza in al-Ayaat. Thirteen homes were looted and destroyed and five people were injured.
• Friday 3 December 2004: A rabble in the village of Manqateen in Minya burned and destroyed the Coptic Church and threatened the lives and property of Copts.
• Friday 14 October 2005 and 21 October 2005: a rioting crowd made up of thousands of angry Muslims marched on St George’s church in Muharram Bey in Alexandria, and attacked Christian-owned homes and shops, spreading terror among the Christians.
• Friday 16 April 2006: An extremist or a group of extremists, armed with swords, attacked four churches in Alexandria, a Coptic citizen fell victim to this terrorist attack and five others were injured.
• Friday 11 May 2007: After Friday Prayer, extremists attacked Christian-owned homes and shops in Bemha, in Ayaat. Reuters reported that 27 homes and shops were set aflame; ten homes and two shops were burnt down. Reuters also reported that in February 2007, a number of Christian-owned shops in Upper Egypt were set on fire as a result of a rumoured love story between a Muslim girl and a Christian young man. The Egyptian newspaper al-Masri al-Yom reported that kerosene was used to set on fire 25 homes and five shops owned by Christians, and attacked their victims with clubs, white weapons and stones.
Other than the above-mentioned attacks, we can cite examples of similar incidents that took place on days other then Friday. More often than not these attacks occurred on a Sunday or during special Coptic occasions and celebrations:
(Mannshaa Dalw – Qalyoubiya, August 1978), (al-Tawfiqiya – Samalut, September 1978), (Ismailiya, July 1980), (al-Zawya, al-Hamra – Cairo, June 1981), (Abu-Qurqas, 1989, February 1990, March 1990), (Ain-Shams – Cairo, March 1990), (Sanhur – Fayoum, April 1990), (Minya Al-Qamh – Sharkiya, April 1990), (Manfalout – Assiut, April 1990), (Al-Nubariya, May 1990), (Hosh-Eissa – Beheira, 1991), (Imbaba – Cairo, September 1991), (Sanabu and Dairut – Assiut, March 1992), (Dairut – Assiut, May 1992), (Sanabu – Assiut, June 1992), (Tema – Sohag, October 1992), (Assiut City, February, 1993), (al-Qoussiya – Assiut, March 1993), (al-Muharraq Monastery, Assiut, March, 1994), (Mir – Assiut, October 1994), (Kafr Demian – Sharkiya, February 1996), (Al-Badari – Assiut, February 1996), (Al-Azab monastery – Fayoum, April 1996), (Tahta – Sohag, August 1996), (al-Fikreya, Abu-Qurqas, February 1997), (al-Timsaheya – Assiut, March 1997), (Ezbet Kamel Takla, Bahgoura – Nagah Hamadi, March 1997), (Tahal-Aameda – Minya, August 1998), (Abu-Tig – Assiut, November 1998), (al-Kosheh – Sohag, August 1998 and January 2000), (Qasr Rashwan – Fayoum, August 2000), (Beni Wallims – Maghagha, February 2002), (Manqateen – Samalut, December 2004), (Demshaw – Minya, January 2005), (Telwana, al-Bagour – Menoufiya, April 2005), (al-Edr – Assiut, May 2005), (Kafr-Salama - Sharkiya, December 2005), (al-Udeisat – Qena, January 2006) (Ezbet Wassef Ghali – al-Ayaat, February 2006), (Alexandria, May 1999, October 2005 and April 2006), (Bemha – al-Ayaat, May 2007).
According to Ibn-Khaldun centre’s annual report, more then 120 violent sectarian incidents took place during the period between the Khanka incident of 6 November 1972 to the Alexandria incident of 21 October 2005. The incidents in question resulted in the death of Copts and required extensive security intervention. Furthermore, hundreds of minor incidents took place during that same period, but they either failed to attract the media’s attention or were purposely ignored. In a previous study, I deduced that more then 4000 Copts have either lost their lives or were injured as a result of attacks carried out by Muslim extremists, and the damages inflicted on their property would amount to millions of dollars. To say nothing of the untold damage done by the climate of terror that compelled many Copts to seek a way out of their homeland.

The security approach
Prevention of crime and protection of public property is the basic mission assigned to public security services, and the overall success or failure of security forces is tied to their ability to carry out this mission. Yet, I will neither discuss the security forces’ competence, nor examine their machinations and cover-up that could be interpreted as indirect complicity in the attacks against the Copts. Nor will I question the aggressive security campaigns that targeted Christian places of worship in Patmos, Shubral-Kheima, Assiut, Samalut, Anba Antonious monastery, and others. However, I will stick to the minimum level acceptable, which is to give a truthful account of the incident and make an unbiased, honest and accurate police report. It is regrettable that, for the past three decades, we have not been able to obtain a single police report that meets this minimal requirement. The claims made in the last statement issued by the Interior Ministry regarding the Bemha incident are proof enough of that failing: the statement indicated that only three Christian-owned homes were set on fire and only three Copts suffered minor injuries. This follows the pattern set by former Interior Minister al-Nabawi Isamil at the al-Zawya al-Hamra, and the role played by police forces in al-Kosheh, Kafr-Dimian, Udeisat and Samalut. The tragic incidents ended with the police detaining a number of Copts in a bid to force them to accept a nominal reconciliation and give up not only their legal rights and their right to just compensation, but also to the State’s right to thwart crime and society’s right to security and peace.

Legal Deterrence
On the day following the Bemha incident last month, the defendants charged with conducting the Udeisat assault in January 2006 were acquitted by court and cleared of all charges. The attack had taken the life of a Coptic citizen; a Coptic child had died out of sheer terror; many had been injured and several property set on fire and destroyed; so who committed these atrocious acts? Had the Copts taken their own lives and destroyed their own properties? What message is the judiciary sending at this particular timing, in parallel to Ayaat incident?
In each case, the Copts were able to identify the suspects and state specific charges. It is not surprising that they recognised the instigators of the attack and those who did the killing, burning and pillage, after all, those assailants did not suddenly land from Mars, they happened to be their neighbours and fellow countrymen. I have dozens of names of suspects that were positively identified by the Copts and reported to the authorities, but they were never indicted nonetheless. The verdicts always appeared to encourage criminal violence against the Copts.
I monitored the court rulings in assault cases against the Copts between 1970 and 2007, in which hundred of Copts were killed. There was not a single death penalty. On the other hand, the assault on tourists and policemen warranted a death penalty in several instances, and many cases were transferred to the military courts which issued swift and severe verdicts.

The People’s Assembly
Prior to the October War, the People’s Assembly formed a fact-finding committee headed by MP Gamal al-Oteify, to investigate Khanka incident of November 1972. The committee issued a balanced report and significant recommendations that were never implemented. Unfortunately, it turned out that the investigation and the report were a mere calming measure. In the aftermath of the Alexandria incident in October 2005, the People’s Assembly formed another fact-finding committee, however the committee has yet to begin its work, and I think it is safe to say that the issue has been dropped. In 1998, MP Mohamed al-Goweili presented the draft of a unified law for places of worship, and nine years later, the project remains shelved despite the fact that this particular law would help reduce the violence against Christians, since a good number of the attacks against Copts churches were supposedly triggered by the lack of a building permit. It makes one wonder why the project is dismissed even as the People’s Assembly finds it possible to discuss and issue new laws in a matter of a few hours, when it so desired.
Members of the People’s Assembly responded to remarks of the Culture Minister against the veil—hijab—with a furious tirade of outrage. In contrast, the bloody attacks against Copts failed to spark anger, interest or compassion; the apathy alone says all there is to say.

To sum up
The lack of an effective social and legal deterrence, the patent absence of a pluralistic societal culture, and the indifference of the executive, legislative and judicial powers have all worked to create an environment that breeds violence against the Copts.
Egyptian professional syndicates rush to help Muslims in Bosnia and Chechan, and raise funds to support the cause of Jihad around the globe, but do nothing to relieve the suffering of their partners in the homeland, who diligently pay their membership fees and share in financing those syndicates.
The Lawyers’ syndicate held a number of seminars in defence of Saddam Hussein, and its attorney took charge of the defence of extremists. The suffering Copts, however, are denied such legal support. The victims of Kafr-Dimian could not even get hold of the funds that were raised locally and abroad to rebuild the village, and no one knows for certain what became of those funds.
I don’t believe a Dhimmi state would be much different.
Sadly, the institutions and culture of the Egyptian society could not keep citizenship and religion apart, and the Copts live in a condition that is closer than not to the historical Dhimmi status.
Copts are being persecuted. Copts everywhere, inside and outside Egypt, clergy or laymen, every one of them has a personal obligation to struggle against this oppression, with all possible peaceful and legal means, on the local and international levels. Those who neglect this duty fail their community, their country, but first and foremost, they fail themselves.
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Magdi Khalil is Executive Director of the Middle East Freedoms Forum.
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