Violations by Security Agents Threaten Violence against Copts in Beni Soueif Village

Press Release

21 August 2008

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) cautioned today about the possible outbreak of sectarian violence in the village of Deshasha, located in the district of Sumusta in the Governorate of Beni Soueif, after police used violence on Sunday, 17 August, to prevent village Copts from repairing the only church in the village. The EIPR called for Copts in the village to be protected from possible violence by their Muslim neighbors and for an investigation into violations by the security apparatus of the laws on church renovations.
The preliminary findings of a field investigation carried out by EIPR researchers found that a policeman assigned to guard the Archangel Michael Church in Deshasha hit three women (who asked to remain anonymous) while they were taking sand into the church to be used to fix the floor, cracked as a result of water collection underneath. According to statements from victims and eyewitnesses, the policeman stopped the three women and refused to allow them to bring the sand into the church, telling them, “You won’t bring one grain of sand into the church but over my dead body.”
After the assault, rumors spread in the village that the Copts had locked the policeman inside the church, beat him, and tore his clothes. Several local Copts, both men and women, said that they had been threatened with violence by their Muslim neighbors and that they were afraid to leave their homes as a result.
“The worrying rise in sectarian tension we've seen in Deshasha is a direct result of violations committed by the police,” said EIPR director Hossam Bahgat. “This incident must be investigated and those responsible held accountable.”
On 17 and 18 August, the police arrested six Coptic youths in the village: Rizq Labib Basili, Ashraf Youssef Samaan, Samir Ibrahim Amin, Samir Ramzi Zaki, Sameh Makram Armanius, and Wahid Ayad Hanna. According to the young men’s attorney, they were transferred to the public prosecutor’s office and then later released after questioning on charges of assaulting a public servant and using violence to prevent him from fulfilling his duties. The prosecutor also released the policeman after questioning him on charges of hitting the three women.
Article 2 of Presidential Decree 391/2005 allows the repair of existing church facilities without a prior permit; church officials need only give written notice to the provincial engineering authorities. Nevertheless, officials from the Archangel Michael Church and the Archbishopric of Biba, al-Fashan, and Sumusta (to which the church is affiliated) say that State Security Intelligence has prevented any repairs to the church for the last eleven years. Church officials say it is the oldest church in the Sumsuta district, built in 1895 and last renovated in 1930. EIPR researchers personally observed the dilapidated state of the wood and brick church, which serves 100 Christian families in the village.
“Why would State Intelligence intervene—and illegally at that—to prevent the repair of a floor in an existing church that has not been renovated for more than 75 years?” Bahgat said. “The Archangel Michael Church in Deshasha is but one example of the futility of any efforts to reform and unify construction and renovation laws for places of worship so long as security agents continue to violate existing laws in a discriminatory manner and with complete impunity.”