Mobs Attack Egyptian Churches near Alexandria

Government forces act quickly to halt second incident in one week.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, June 15 (Compass Direct News) – Muslim rioters attacked two Coptic Orthodox churches, damaged Christian-owned shops and injured seven Christians in two unrelated incidents in northern Egypt during the past week, local Christians said.


Witnesses said that a mob in Zawyet Abdel-Qader, 20 miles west of Alexandria, had freely vandalized the town’s Christian quarter for 90 minutes the night of June 8 before police intervened.


In a second incident in Dekheila, six miles west of Alexandria, police immediately halted a mob attack on the Church of the Holy Virgin on Tuesday night (June 12), preventing all but minimal damage from occurring.


Local Christians confirmed that each attack was triggered by a fight between a Muslim and a Christian, but Akram Anwar Bekheed, a local member of the National Democratic Party in Zawyet Abdel-Qader, laid partial responsibility on the government.


Bekheed said that the government had created a permissive atmosphere for sectarian violence by allowing previous attacks on churches to go unpunished in the interest of keeping peace.


In April 2006, Alexandria was the scene of three knife attacks on churches that killed one Christian and left a dozen more injured. The government appeared unable or unwilling to halt subsequent vandalism of Coptic-owned shops and churches, blaming the initial attacks on a man they said was mentally unstable.


In a more recent incident in January, local sources said that violent Muslims had attacked a church-owned social services building in southern Zawyet Abdel-Qader, damaging the doors and windows. Hours later, police oversaw the bull-dozing of the building, despite the fact that the church had obtained a permit from Alexandria’s governor.


Local Christians in Zawyet Abdel-Qader said that last week’s attack followed a June 7argument between a Christian truck driver and a Muslim teenager who refused to move out of his truck’s path on a narrow street. Both young men’s fathers became involved in the fight, and police eventually arrested the four men.


Eyewitnesses said that on June 8, after mid-day prayers, Muslim worshippers exiting the mosque began congregating at local coffee shops.


“We felt that there was some sort of conspiracy, and we couldn’t understand what it was,” local Christians told visitors to Zawyet Abdel-Qader. They said that men from outside the town arrived at the coffee shops carrying large bags, which they said they later found out contained swords, daggers and flammable material.


At 9:45 p.m. the Muslims marched to the Christian quarter of town, where they began attacking Christian homes and shops. Local Copts attempted to defend their property, seven of them sustaining injuries during the fighting.


Mariam Adel, 24, suffered burns from an acid solution while grocery store owner Yasser Agaibi received stab wounds to his head, face and back and had to be hospitalized. A poultry and fish shop owned by Abdel Messih Sidqy and a bakery co-owned by Khairi Rizq and William Butros also sustained damage.


“They broke glass and windows and looted the shops,” one source told Compass in the wake of the attack.


A telephone calling center owned by Nashat Mitiass was badly damaged in the attack. “My losses amount to approximately 40,000 Egyptian pounds [LE],” he told visitors to the town.


“Considering it’s a very poor neighborhood, 40,000 LE is like a fortune,” one Copt commented to Compass. “Here they can’t get loans from banks and his place was not insured.”


The mob had just turned its efforts toward the St. Mary and St. Mercurius Church when law enforcement arrived and halted the violence. The church sustained relatively little damage.


“Zawyet Abdel-Qadir is an informal settlement that grew up around the railway line,” one Egyptian observer told Compass. “There is not much law enforcement there and there are a lot of Islamists.”


Police reportedly detained eight Muslims and 10 Christians at the Amriya police station, though no further details were available.


Street Violence

Four days later, on Tuesday (June 12) at 9 p.m., tension flared between 16-year-old Christian Bassem Mikail and 21-year-old Muslim Abdel-Dayem, both construction workers, directly in front of Dekheila’s Holy Virgin church. The conflict escalated into a street fight between local Muslims and Christians, and the Muslims launched an attack on the nearby church, throwing bottles and stones.


A church guard quickly closed the church gates and called police, who immediately arrived and surrounded the church, quelling all violence.


According to Christian members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), police arrested 15 Copts and seven Muslims. Compass sources said that four Christians were referred to the state prosecutor, who charged them with assault. No charges have been brought against the other 11, who remain in detention.


The source also said that three charges of assault, destruction and inciting people to destruction have been brought against the seven Muslims, one of whom is the imam (Muslim cleric) of a mosque next to the church.


Attacks against Egyptian Christians have been on the rise in recent months. In May, Muslims in the town of Bemha attacked Christian homes after hearing a rumor that the community was building a new church.


According to Coptic editor and columnist Youssef Sidhom, sectarian violence will continue to erupt in Egypt as long as underlying issues remain unaddressed.


“Fanatic thought, the culture of rejection of the other, and the curtailed freedom of worship, if left unchecked, constitute a time bomb that can go off any minute,” Sidhom stated in his June 10 column in Coptic weekly Watani.


Coptic Christians are estimated to make up 8 to 15 percent of Egypt’s population. The majority of these belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.




*** Photos of damaged shops in Zawyet Abdel-Qader are available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.



Copyright 2007 Compass Direct News


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