Rights Monitors and Eyewitnesses Concur that Security Failed to Protect Lives and Churches... Resorting to Street Justice and the Use of Weapons by Both Sides Threatens Wider-Scale Violence
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a report today detailing the findings of a field investigation carried out by its researchers on the sectarian attacks that took place in Imbaba on 7 and 8 May, as a result of which 15 people died and 242 people were injured.
The authorities’ response to the attacks reveals the continued failure of the security apparatus to deal with sectarian crises, the report concludes. The police knew in advance that groups of Salafis had assembled in front of the Mar Mina Church in Imbaba, but they failed to anticipate the events—despite evidence suggesting the potential for violence two or more hours before clashes erupted—and in turn failed to prevent the violence.
Both the police force and the army bear full responsibility for the torching of the Virgin Mary Church on Wehda Street in Imbaba. The EIPR gathered testimonies confirming that no army forces were present to secure the church after the police charged with guarding the facility fled upon the assailants’ arrival. There were several indications that groups of Muslims would attempt to attack other churches in the area, but despite the heavy presence of army and police forces on the main streets near the Mar Mina Church, neither body deployed their forces around other churches in the area, which facilitated the burning of the Virgin Mary Church.
“Statements from our researchers who were at the site of the attacks as well as the testimonies we collected from eyewitnesses reveal clear dereliction of duty on the part of the security apparatus,” said Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the EIPR. “The violence and the assault on churches could have been stopped if security forces had acted swiftly to deal with the crisis within the limits of the law.”
The report, titled “Street Justice,” warns that the state must take immediate steps to assume its responsibility for upholding justice and enforcing the rule of law, instead of allowing disputing parties to take what they see as their rights by force, as was the case in Imbaba.
The reaction of Christians in the area to attempts by Muslims to storm the Mar Mina Church—in search of a Christian woman who they claimed had converted to Islam in September 2010 and disappeared last March—and the resulting use of firearms and violence by both sides that left several dead and many wounded may signal violence on a broader scale or herald the return of acts of terrorism as Imbaba saw in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The Public Prosecutor must expand the investigation into the events to include the role of the authorities present on the scene and whether they used the prerogatives granted them by law to enforce the law, the EIPR says. Testimonies collected by the EIPR from eyewitnesses and its own presence on the scene reveal that the police forces on the scene left the responsibility to intervene wholly with the army, which informed the victims that its role was limited to securing the church and that its directives did not include engaging with local residents.
The EIPR reiterates that the freedom to change one’s religion is an integral part of the right to freedom of religion and belief and is a right guaranteed to all citizens without exception. No person or religious institution has the right to examine the conscience of any citizen, inquire about his/her religion or attempt to influence him/her in this regard. The report urges all state authorities to take immediate action to guarantee that the freedom of belief is upheld for all citizens without negative consequences or pressure should any citizen change their religious faith.
The EIPR believes that all religious institutions must respect the freedom of citizens to choose their faith or religion without tutelage or influence. At the same time, the EIPR is concerned by the attempts of some groups to usurp the state’s authority in order to enforce the law or impose their domination or ideas on citizens by force. The EIPR maintains that the state alone has the authority to investigate any alleged violations of the law and hold those responsible to account.
Although the EIPR is encouraged by the rapid action taken by the investigating authorities to apprehend those involved in the crimes in Imbaba, it stresses that all such investigations must be conducted with full transparency and the findings announced to the public. Moreover, all suspects must be referred without delay to a criminal court, where they must be given a fair trial with all due process guarantees, to avoid any suspicions about the verdict or questions about political expediency.
The EIPR urges the government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is currently governing the country in this transitional phase, to take immediate steps to provide protection for all individuals, confessions and houses of worship, as a prelude to far-reaching measures by state authorities and civil society to address sectarianism in Egypt, which was exacerbated by the crimes of the former regime over the last several decades.
To read the report in Arabic please click here. An English translation shall be available shortly.