Abu Fana: Reconciliation is No Substitute for Justice
Reconciliation efforts following the armed assault on the Abu Fana Coptic monastery in Minya last May must not lead to impunity for the perpetrators of serious abuses, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) warned today.
The EIPR stressed that the official response to the crisis should not be confined to the settlement being negotiated currently with government mediation between representatives of the Coptic Church and the Bedouin residents of the village adjacent to the monastery.
"Negotiating a consensual resolution to the land dispute in Abu Fana is a welcome, if tragically overdue, initiative," said EIPR executive director Hossam Bahgat. "But the serious crimes committed in the context of that dispute must not go unpunished if the government is serious about preventing their recurrence."
The EIPR urged the Public Prosecutor to ensure that the criminal investigation into the events is completed, and that perpetrators are referred to trial. The incidents resulted in the killing of a Muslim farmer by gunshot, the source of which remains unrevealed, and the injury of seven monks, including three who were kidnapped by the Bedouin before being released a few hours later.
The Mallawi prosecutor’s office has scheduled a hearing tomorrow to consider renewing the pretrial detention of fifteen defendants, including two Copts, who were detained after the assaults. The detainees are being investigated for the murder of the Muslim farmer, as well as the charges of attempted murder, aggravated kidnapping, the possession of unlicensed weapons and ammunition, assault on a place of worship and the burning of its subsidiary buildings, and the destruction of crops.
Investigation by EIPR researchers revealed that two of the monastery's monks were shot during the assault, while other monks sustained broken bones, muscle tears, and bruises due to physical blows, whipping, dragging, and pelting with stones. Some of the injured monks who had been kidnapped by the Bedouins were physically abused and their religious beliefs were denigrated. They were forced to spit at a cross under physical duress and cite the shahada indicating their conversion to Islam (There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His messenger). The assault also resulted in the destruction of a small church built on the monastery’s farm and its entire contents.
"We are not contesting the government's insistence that the Abu Fana land dispute did not start for religious reasons," said Bahgat. "But kidnapping and abusing monks, denigrating their beliefs and destroying their church are all heinous crimes committed on sectarian grounds and could constitute dangerous precedents if left without punishment."
A report released by the government-created National Council for Human Rights last month regarding the Abu Fana assaults criticized the State's approach to sectarian clashes which "is only limited to reconciliation gatherings and security solutions." The council recommended establishing accountability for the incidents, revealing the truth about the crimes committed and the prosecution and punishment of their perpetrators.
On 31 May 2008, monks at the Abu Fana ancient monastery, located 270 km south of, came under armed attack by some 60 Bedouins living in Qasr Hur, a village adjacent to the monastery. Shots were fired at the monastery—some reports indicate that there was an exchange of gunfire, but the monks strenuously deny this—for at least four hours, after which security forces arrived to stop the assault. The clash grew out of a dispute that began several years ago between the monks, who have launched a land reclamation effort around the monastery, and Muslim Bedouins living in the adjacent village, who consider the land theirs by right of occupancy. The lands in question are state owned. Following the assault, the Minya Governor appointed a non-governmental commission comprising representatives from the two parties and members of the ruling National Democratic Party to negotiate a written understanding regarding the ownership of the land surrounding the monastery.