EIPR warns of increasing sectarian attacks in Minya governorate and urges state institutions to enforce the law and initiate social dialogue on the church construction law

Press Release

Monday, 18 July, 2016

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is extremely concerned with the increasing frequency of sectarian violence in the Minya governorate, which has been the scene of attacks and the burning of Copts’ homes in several towns. We also caution against the official approach , which deal mainly with these violations through customary reconciliation sessions: an instrument that only serves to perpetuate tensions and creates a climate in which any dispute between citizens is liable to escalate into sectarian violence and collective punishment. It also strengthens the belief among some citizens that they have the right to dictate the practice of religious rites by other citizens.

The governorate of Minya has witnessed several instances of sectarian violence recently, most prominently:

-A family of two Christian clerics in the village of Tahna al-Gabal was attacked on Sunday with sticks and bladed weapons, resulting in the death of Fam Mary Khalaf. Three other people sustained stab wounds.

-Last Friday, several hundred angry Muslims in Nazlat Abu Yaqoub in the Minya district attacked the homes of several Copts, looting and burning of five of them, claiming that a house was being converted into a church.

-On June 29, 2016, Muslims in Kom al-Loufi in the district of Samalout attacked the home of Ashraf Khalaf Fahmi, which is under construction, claiming it was a church. They set fire to it and four other adjacent houses owned by his brothers.

The EIPR has documented 77 incidents of sectarian violence and tension in Minya since January 25, 2011, including ten incidents since January 2016. This figure does not include the violence and attacks on churches, religious structures, schools, civic associations, and private property owned by Copts from August 14 to 17 following the violent crack down on the sit-ins of the supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi at Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares, which were reprisals for protests by Egyptians and the removal of President Mohammed Morsi.

“The government has failed to deal with the issue of Christian-Muslim relations and sectarian attacks due to the dominance of a purely security mentality,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an EIPR researcher. “Problems are viewed as isolated incidents and the most needed comprehensive vision of causes, manifestations, or solutions is simply absent. Solutions are typically short sighted, and often unlawful.”

He added, “In some cases, despite the deployment of security forces on the scene, attacks have taken place and reinforcements arrive late.”

The EIPR affirms the importance of clear directives by state institutions to enforce the law in criminal incidents. The security apparatus and Public Prosecution are obligated to arrest persons involved and those inciting to sectarian violence and to question them as a prelude to prosecution.

The EIPR demands that immediate steps be taken to legalize the status of churches and existing church buildings where worship services are held without a permit. The law on the construction of churches and affiliated buildings, scheduled to be put to the House of Representatives, should be the subject of serious social debate. Religious institutions and civil society organizations must be given the opportunity to actively engage with the terms of the law and its implementing regulations, to ensure that the law as issued includes objective, fair rules and conditions that meet the needs of various sectors of the citizenry.

In the coming days, the EIPR will launch a campaign to raise awareness of the problems of church construction and renovation, with the objective of ensuring the issuance of a fair law for church construction that is consistent with the right to worship as enshrined in the constitution and international human rights conventions.

For more information about customary reconciliation sessions, see:

According to Which Customs: The Role of Customary Reconciliation Sessions in Sectarian Incidents and the Responsibility of the State

Watch a video about customary reconciliation sessions here.

 

Description of incidents

Assault on family of two Christian clerics

A family of two Christian clerics in the village of Tahna al-Gabal was attacked at 6 pm on Sunday, July 17, 2016, with sticks and bladed weapons, resulting in the death of Fam Mary Khalaf, 27, due to a stab wound to the heart. Nagib Hanna, the father of Father Matawous, sustained several stab wounds to the face. Malak Aziz, the brother of Father Botros, was stabbed on his right torso, and Ghazza Gomaa, a Coptic neighbor, sustained light facial injuries.

According to the family of the victim, four young Muslims riding a tricycle got into an argument with Nagib Hanna about traffic in the street. The priest’s son and other Coptic children were drawn into the argument. The young men cursed the priest and his family, and they were joined by some 20 local residents. The people present in the street were then attacked with bladed weapons. Security forces arrived an hour later and took the injured persons to the Good Shepherd Hospital in Samalout for treatment.

Coptic homes torched in Nazlat Abu Yaqoub following claims that a house was being converted into a church

Several hundred people attacked Copts’ homes in Nazlat Abu Yaqoub, located in the town of Manshaat al-Dahab in the Minya district, after rumors spread that a home was being converted into a church. Testimonies obtained by the EIPR were consistent with the statement of the Minya and Abu Qurqas bishopric, where the village is located. According to statements, Reda Khalil and his brother Ibrahim began to outfit a two-bedroom apartment of 80 sq m on the ground floor of a house for use as a kindergarten to serve local Muslims and Copts.

At 9 pm on Friday, July 15, several hundred angry Muslims attacked the house and several nearby Coptic homes, chanting religious and anti-Coptic slogans. Eyewitnesses said that cars bringing people from nearby villages joined the attackers. They all attacked the houses, brandished weapons in the faces of Copts on the street, and expelled Copts from their homes. Some of them took cover in nearby agricultural land.

This was followed by the looting and theft of the contents of the homes, after which they were torched. Testimonies agreed that the building was not being outfitted as a church. There is already a church in the village for worship, and the building is purposed as a residential structure. One of the injured parties placed responsibility on Ashraf Sayyed, a driver who works at the Minya Security Directorate. Sayyed lives in the same street and was alleged to be the primary inciter to the attacks.

Five houses were torched in the attacks, owned by Istamalik Youssef, Yohanna Youssef, Abd al-Malak Salib, Ibrahim Khalil, and Wadia Farag.

As soon as the attacks began, the security and executive authorities were notified. Security forces arrived an hour later. The fire truck, which came from Saft al-Khimar, located one km away, had no water. The day following the attacks, the Summary Prosecution took a video survey of the scene and assigned it to the criminal lab. The governorate allocated no cash or in-kind assistance to the injured parties, although the governor announced that he had disbursed LE40,000 in assistance for the injured parties.

According to a statement from the Minya Security Directorate, security forces arrested 15 people; another 17 people were subsequently arrested, bringing the total to 32 suspects.

Despite the presence of security forces, tension persists due to pressure from state agencies and the families of the suspects on Copts to accept customary reconciliation as a prelude to the release of suspects.

Coptic homes torched in Kom al-Loufi following rumors of church construction

At 12 midnight on Wednesday, June 29, 2016, several hundred Muslim residents of Kom al-Loufi, located in the Samalout district, attacked the home, under construction, of Ashraf Khalaf Fahmi, claiming it was a church. They set fire to it and four other nearby houses owned by Fahmi’s brothers.

In the days before the incident, tensions and a looming crisis in the village were apparent. A rumor spread that the house being built was going to be used as a church. A security force from the Samalout police station on Monday, June 27, stopped construction on the house and spoke to the city’s engineering department. Ashraf Khalaf, the owner of the house, signed an affidavit in the Samalout police station, in the presence of police officers and the local mayor and sheikh, saying that the house would be a residence and there was no intention to use it for any other purpose.

Nevertheless, tension persisted and incitement against Copts increased. The owner of the house went to see prominent Muslim families in town to assure them that the house was to be used as a residence. He and several other Copts signed another affidavit saying the building was not a church. On Wednesday evening, during a customary reconciliation session at the home of the town sheikh, hundreds of people attacked Ashraf Khalaf’s house and set fire to it. They also threatened to kill his brothers, who live in nearby houses. A Muslim neighbor helped the Christian families to get out of the village before they were attacked.

A force from the Samalout police station went to the village, but they were pelted with bricks and stones, which shattered the windshields of two police vehicles, one of them carrying the chief of the Samalout station.

The attacks culminated in the looting and torching of the houses of:

-Ashraf Khalaf Fahmi, farmer and owner of the building. The estimated cost of the building is LE37,000, in addition to 12 tons of cement and 2 tons of steel. His home furnishings, which were in his brother’s home, were also lost when that house was torched as well.

-Ibrahim Khalaf, tailor. Items in his shop were also lost in the fire, including two steam irons and a sewing machine, as well as home furnishings and electrical appliances.

-Amir Ibrahim Khalaf Fahmi. Cash and gold jewelry were also stolen from his home during the incident.

-Yunan Khalaf Fahmi. His home furnishings and electrical appliances were burned in the fire.

The Samalout bishopric, which has ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the town, issued a statement with three demands:

Compensation and reconstruction of the Coptic homes that were looted and torched.

No customary reconciliation until the law is enforced.

Approval for an application to build a church, filed ten years ago, on land owned by the bishopric. Local Copts attend services at the St. Abu Seifein Church in Ezbat Rafla, located more than 8 km away.

Security forces arrested several of the assailants, and on July 11, the Public Prosecution renewed remand for 19 defendants, who were charged with fomenting chaos, setting fire to homes, and resisting the authorities. The Minya governor allocated LE40,000 to assist the injured parties.

Tension persists in the village as local Copts are under pressure to accept customary reconciliation, brought to bear by several state institutions, including the Beit al-A’ila, an interfaith institution overseen by al-Azhar and the Church. According to sources in the village, most local Copts only go out during the day and stay at home at night, and they are subjected to substantial verbal harassment. A Coptic girl disappeared on July 13, while Ibrahim Khalaf, the brother of the owner of the house in dispute, was beaten before security forces in the village intervened to save him. Fliers have been distributed opposing any church in the village and others contain incitement against Copts, especially since the Copts have rejected customary reconciliation and refused to accept donations from the Muslim side to rebuild their houses.