Crimes in Al-Amiriya: Collective Punishment of Copts and Official Sanction for Sectarian Attacks
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights today issued the findings of its investigation into the sectarian attacks on Copts in the village of Sharbat, located in the Amiriya district of the governorate of Alexandria, in late January. In the aftermath of the attacks, a customary agreement was concluded that entailed the expulsion of eight Christian families from the village, under the aegis of executive and security officials in the governorate, as well as members of parliament.
The EIPR harshly condemned the failure of police and army forces to protect Christian residents’ homes and property, which was looted and torched following rumors that a Christian youth was circulating sexually explicit photos of himself and a Muslim woman from the village. The attacks took place after the young man turned himself in to the police and the prosecution detained him pending an investigation. The EIPR notes that the law does not permit customary reconciliation in cases of arson, and in sponsoring the customary agreement, governorate officials flagrantly violated the law, which necessitates a criminal investigation.
The EIPR utterly rejects the perpetuation of Mubarak-era policies that force victims of sectarian attacks—particularly those who have no stake in the original dispute—to accept the outcomes of illegal reconciliation processes and thus compel them to abandon their rights and accept the assaults on them—indeed, compel them to evacuate their homes and be expelled from their village—instead of the provision of protection and legal aid by state authorities.
The EIPR stressed the need to open a swift, independent judicial and parliamentary investigation into all these crimes and punish those involved in them. The investigation should include the role of police and army leaders who were at the scene of the crime while it was taking place and offered no protection for victims of the attacks.
“Shame on executive and legislative officials for providing legal cover for crimes in an ostensible ‘reconciliation’ that punishes the victims and acquits the offenders,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an EIPR researcher with the Freedom of Religion and Belief Program. “As long as the Egyptian judiciary and the elected People’s Assembly do not intervene to relieve this injustice and restore the rule of law, they are complicit in these crimes.”
On Friday, 27 January 2012, dozens of Muslim youths in the village of Sharbat, located in the al-Nahda area of the Amiriya district in the governorate of Alexandria, led by a sheikh known as Shaaban, gathered in front of the home of Sami Girgis, a Christian, demanding that he and his family leave the village immediately without taking any of their property, on the grounds that video images were circulating showing a sexual relationship between his son, Murad Sami Girgis, and a Muslim woman from the village.
Stories differ as to how the crisis began, especially as eyewitnesses said that they did not see the images of video footage. They agreed that a policeman from the village at the Amiriya police station informed Murad Sami Girgis and a Muslim friend, Mohamed Abd al-Salam Taaima, at 2 am Friday that an Amiriya police officer had summoned them to the station. When they arrived, the officer confiscated their mobile phones and told them that a rumor was circulating in town about video footage of a sexual liaison between a Christian youth and a Muslim woman and that Taaima had spread the rumor among villagers. According to statements gathered by the EIPR, when the police officer did not find the footage on the two men’s mobile phones, he told them that he would release them after the Friday prayer, fearing for their lives if he let them go earlier.
On Friday morning, prominent Christian and Muslim families in the village spoke to calm the situation and agreed to abide by the law while expelling the family of the Christian man. But the gathering in front of Sami Girgis’s home soon grew in numbers, reaching several thousand Muslims from Sharbat and neighboring villages by 3 pm. The group was chanting religious slogans and carrying rocks, sticks, Molotov cocktails, edged weapons and firearms. Sami Girgis and his brother closed the gates of their home and put several heavy objects behind them to prevent a break-in, then they and the rest of the family moved to the upper floors of the building.
The angry mob tried to break down the iron gates to the house, but failed, after which they began pelting it with stones. They then broke the doors to three shops on the building’s ground floor and looted them entirely: the first a tailor and cloth shop owned by Murad Sami Girgis, the second a spare auto parts store owned by his brother Nabil and the third a computer accessory shop owned by his younger brother Walid. The mob also attempted to set fire to the house and the empty wooden shelves of the three shops, but Muslim neighbors prevented them from doing so, fearing the blaze would spread to their nearby houses.
A group of the assembled Muslims then headed for Christian homes in the village, whose occupants had locked their doors fearing the spread of attacks. The assailants pelted the houses with stones, and several of them broke into shops on the ground floor of residential buildings, looted their contents and set fire to them. Some Muslims guaranteed the physical safety of their neighbors, but did not intervene to stop the looting and arson.
It was said that a Christian citizen, Louis Abskharon Suleiman, fired several shots from his personal firearm while the shop owned by his father, Abskharon Suleiman, was being robbed and torched, in order to disperse the attackers. They exchanged fire with him in turn, but there were no injuries.
Christians in the village and church leaders contacted security officials, both police and army, as well as executive leaders and the fire brigade, asking for swift intervention to save them. According to various testimonies, security forces reached the village late and only intervened at 9 pm, after the fires had consumed several homes. The victims said that when they called security leaders, they told them that they would enter the area when the situation had calmed and disperse the angry mob.
Meanwhile, Muslim residents prevented civil defense forces from entering the burning houses to put out the fire, permitting them to perform their job only the day after the events. One sheikh intervened to calm matters and disperse the assembled Muslims and brought a car to take Louis Suleiman’s wife, two children, father, and his brothers and their families out of the village, along with Abskharon Suleiman and his four children. According to many, as soon as the attacks ended, many Muslims formed popular committees to protect the homes of their Christian neighbors, both those who had left the village and those who remained inside their homes fearing they would burned.
The fire completely destroyed the home of Abskharon Khalil Suleiman, along with the home of Dahshour Andraus and his brother al-Saba Andraus. The homes of Girgis Rashad, Samir Rashad and Sami Girgis were damaged due to the stoning and attempts to storm them. Six mobile and home supply shops were looted, belonging to Abskharon Suleiman and his four children (Suleiman, Louis, Adel and Milad), along with a cloth shop owned by Samir Rashad, two shops owned by al-Siba Andraus—a cleaning and plumbing supplies store and a paint store—and a mobile phone shop owned by Dahshour Andraus. Attempts were made to storm and burn the home of Murad Sami Girgis, but were stopped by his Muslim neighbors, after which the attackers left the area and went to his father’s house.
Alexandria governor Osama al-Fouli, the director of security and several MPs with the Justice and Freedom and Nour Parties went to the village, most prominently Essam Hassanein and Ahmed Abd al-Hamid, MPs with the Nour Party. They met with leading Muslim families in the al-Rahman Mosque in the village and agreed to expel the Christian youth, Murad Sami Girgis. The governor announced that Muslim-Christian clashes in the village had subsided, explaining that it was a personal dispute that arose after a young Christian published a photo of a Muslim girl, which angered her family and prompted them to seek vengeance. He said that villagers had agreed that the young man who had caused the moral scandal would leave the village to reside in another area. The Public Prosecutor ordered Sami Murad Girgis and Mohamed Abd al-Salam Taaima detained for four days pending an investigation; their detention was later renewed for an additional 15 days.
A customary reconciliation session was convened on 30 January after the afternoon prayers, attended by Sheikh Ahmed Sherif al-Hawari, a leading member of the Salafis in Amiriya; Father Buqtur Nashed, the priest at the Mar Girgis Church in al-Nahda; and Essam Hassanein, an MP with the Nour Party. It was decided that:
• The prosecution of the Christian man would proceed and his entire family would be expelled.
• Another session would be convened on 1 February to consider the firing of gunshots by Louis Abskharon Khalil.
When the sheikhs in the village learned of the agreement, hundreds of Muslim youths assembled chanting “Oh Christians, you low sort, the honor of Muslims is not cheap,” and “Leave,” in reference to the expulsion of the Christian youth. They organized a march in the village streets and threw bricks at Christian homes, after which they set fire to another house belonging to Abskharon Suleiman, which had not been burned in Friday’s events. Security forces present in the village did nothing to prevent the attacks on homes, which began at 8 pm and continued for two hours. Army forces later deployed on streets with Christian homes and secured them.
The second reconciliation session was convened at the offices of the Amiriya police, attended by Lt. Col. Khaled Shalabi, the head the criminal investigation unit in Alexandria, as well as Sheikh Ahmed Sherif al-Hawari, Father Buqtur Nashed, Abskharon Suleiman and seven representatives of Muslim families in the village. According to statements obtained by EIPR researchers from participants, the Muslim side, with the blessing of security leaders, announced that eight Christian families would be expelled from the village, ostensibly to calm the Muslim street, including:
• Murad Sami Girgis and his family, his father Sami Girgis and his brother Romani Girgis, along with their families.
• Abskharon Khalil Suleiman and his family, and his four sons and their families: Suleiman (married with three children), Adel (married with two children), Milad (married with two children) and Louis (married with one child).
The Muslim side announced that the property of the expelled families would be sold within three months through a committee headed by Sheikh Sherif al-Hawari, and that no sale would take place but with the approval of the committee. It was also declared that the expelled families could not return to the village, even in the company of persons wanting to buy their property. It was announced that the committee would collect the value of outstanding debts owed the expelled shopkeepers, who sold items to local residents. The Christian side objected to the conditions of the reconciliation, particularly the expulsion of Abskharon Khalil and his children and the sale of their property. In response, they were told, “Anyone who wants to return to the village will be responsible for any attack or problem he might face.”
In the following days, attempts were made to convince the Muslim party to allow Abskharon Khalil and his children to remain in the village. Another session was convened on 9 February between Salafi leader Sheikh Sherif al-Hawari, appointed to sell the property, and Abskharon Khalil. The Muslim party stated that Abskharon’s presence in the village would foment strife among village Muslims, who were divided over his expulsion and that they—the village Muslims—could not guarantee his safety or that of his family.