Egypt: growing violence against Copts in south

From Compass Direct News, Feb. 22. Compass Direct monitors global persecution of Christians, and likely has its own evangelical axes to grind. But nobody else is covering this.

Police detained Christian families in Upper Egypt and forced them to deny arson attacks on their homes during a spate of anti-Christian violence last week, the families said.

Two Coptic Orthodox families said police detained them for 36 hours when they attempted to report a February 13 assault on their homes in Armant, 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Cairo.

The fires came five days after Muslim groups set four Christian-owned shops alight on February 9.

International media reported that rumors of a love affair between a Christian man and Muslim woman sparked the violence, but local papers said hostilities began over accusations that Christians were blackmailing Muslim women to convert.

In the wake of the violence, police detained eight Muslim young men and Copt Ramy Ishaq, whose relationship with a 19-year-old Muslim woman was the basis for the romance rumors, sources in Armant told Compass.

According to the sources, Ishaq and seven of the Muslims remain in police custody.

Two Copts said that on the evening of February 13 unknown assailants threw burning, kerosene-soaked cotton onto their houses on the outskirts of Armant.

The Christians, who requested anonymity, said that they were able to quickly put out the fires and then went with a group of six family members to report the attack at the police station. Upon their arrival, officials refused to investigate the report, saying that there was no evidence and the damage was minimal.

“Police asked them to sign statements that they had attempted to set their own homes on fire to claim that they were being attacked by Muslims and to demand police protection,” one source told Compass.

Officials detained the six Copts until Thursday morning (February 15), when the Christians finally agreed to sign statements that they had burned their own homes. According to local sources, Makram Gerguis, a Christian member of the governorate council, helped negotiate for the Copts by vouching that the statements would not be used against them.

Rumors of Blackmail

Cairo weekly Sawt al-Umma claimed that Armant hostilities began over accusations that Christians were forcing Muslim women to convert to Christianity. The February 19 article printed rumors that photography studio owner Ashraf Narouz, a Copt, had been taking pictures of naked Muslim women to blackmail them to convert.

Narouz’ studio and a grocery store owned by Copt Mehareb Azer suffered heavy damage in the February 9 attacks, while shops owned by Christians Shenouda Farag and Mina Sawiris were only partially burned. Sawt al-Umma reported that a Christian-owned car was also set alight the following day.

The weekly went on to blame the Christian governor of Qena, Magdy Iskandar, with fomenting religious tension by favoring Christians in his governorate. The paper also faulted expatriate Coptic activists for “raising sectarian strife by writing that Christians are persecuted.”

But interviews with Armant’s Muslim residents published in Coptic-owned weekly Watani painted a more nuanced picture.

Mohamed Abdel-Qader, the Muslim father of one 16-year-old involved in the violence, told Watani that he was so angry with his son he would not visit him in jail. Abdel-Qader and other parents blamed radical Muslim groups who had indoctrinated the city’s youth in “extremist, fanatical thought,” since the late 1990s, the February 18 article said.

Ishaq was “probably hated by other young men because he had a successful business, whereas many young Muslims suffered unemployment and poverty,” one prominent Muslim who requested anonymity told Watani.

The Watani article noted that Christians and Muslims in Armant were well-integrated, unlike many other villages in Upper Egypt where each group lives in separate areas.

Local sources told Compass that the owners of the damaged shops had not been reimbursed by the government. But Watani reported that Member of Parliament Mohamed al-Nubi and village leaders discussed opening a private account to help with reconstruction.

Inter-religious romance, taboo in both Egypt’s Muslim and Christian communities, has often been blamed for tension between Christians and Muslims in recent years.

Copts maintain that Christian young women are regularly kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. These claims are often difficult to prove, and skeptics counter that the women may leave of their own free will to escape poverty and bad family situations or for love.

But the debate surrounding motives at times obscures the reality that non-Muslims are discriminated against under Egyptian law. Christian men cannot legally marry Muslim women (though Muslim men can marry Christian women), and there is no legal provision for conversion from Islam to another religion.

In practice, Egyptian security forces often cooperate in anti-Christian violence that the government and local and foreign press sanitize with the label, “sectarian unrest.”

Last year, two Copts died and more than 20 were injured in attacks on churches in el-Udaysaat in January and Alexandria in April.

See our last posts on the Egypt and the Copts.