Violence erupts on mere suspicion of a prayer meeting.

ISTANBUL, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Nearly 1,000 Coptic Christians in Egypt are hiding in their homes after clashes erupted Sunday (June 21) between them and their village’s majority-Muslim population over the use of a three-story building belonging to the Coptic Church.

When on Sunday at 11 a.m. a group of 25 Christians from Cairo stopped in Ezbet Boshra-East, a village of about 3,000 people three hours south of Cairo by car, few villagers failed to take notice. Planning to visit local Christians and the Rev. Isaac Castor, the group had gathered outside the building owned by the Coptic Church, where the priest lives with his family.

Castor said only six of them had entered the building when Muslim neighbors approached the rest of the group waiting outside and began taunting them. A Muslim woman walked up to one of the visiting women, he said, and slapped her.

Soon village youths gathered and started throwing stones at the visitors and the building, and according to Castor within minutes hundreds of villagers, Muslims against Christians, were fighting each other in the streets of Ezbet Boshra-East. Castor’s car was also vandalized.

“They were all over the streets hitting each other with sticks and their fists,” Castor told Compass from his home by phone. “Some people were on top of buildings throwing stones; it was like a civil war.”

Sectarian tensions have previously flared in the village. Last July, when Castor first moved to Ezbet Boshra-East with his family, Muslims vandalized Christians’ farmlands and poisoned their domestic animals after services took place at the building owned by the church, according to International Christian Concern.

Since last July’s incidents, authorities have stipulated that only two Christians at a time can visit the building, and according to Castor this was the source of the fighting that erupted in front of the building on Sunday. The neighbors thought he was conducting a prayer meeting and not adhering to the rule set by local authorities.

In the violent clash in front of the church-owned building, 17 Christians and eight Muslims were estimated to have been injured. According to various reports, nearly 19 Coptic Christians were arrested and released the following day, along with the injured Muslims.

So far there is no concrete information on how the Christians were treated while in prison. During the arrests of the Christians, police vandalized many of their homes. Egyptian sources told Compass that police often turn the homes of those whom they arrest “upside down.”

Soon after the clashes, electricity and phone services were cut. Electricity was restored after 24 hours, but at press time telephones were still not operating. All communications happen via mobile phones.

Authorities also imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on the entire village, but Castor said Christians were too afraid to come out of their homes and were living off personal food stockpiles. He also said that a number of families had left the village to stay with friends and relatives in nearby towns and villages. Eyewitnesses visiting Ezbet Boshra-East yesterday confirmed that although there were Muslim villagers outside, there were no Christians walking on the streets.

Procedures vs. Tolerance

There is no church building in Ezbet Boshra-East, and so far the Coptic Church has not sought to obtain permission to build one. Nor has it officially applied for permission to use the three-story building as a place of prayer as an official association.

When a reporter from a major Egyptian TV channel asked Castor by telephone whether he had obtained permission for prayer and worship for the building purchased by the church, he responded, “Do I need to have permission if I was called to pray for a sick person?” He admitted in the interview, however, that obtaining permission would help to avoid clashes and that authorities should grant it quickly.

There are other villages around Ezbet Boshra-East, such as Talt three kilometers away, where there are Coptic associations. Also, official churches are established in Ezbet Boshra-West and El Fashn, both 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Castor said poor Muslim-Christian relations are reflected in the lack of an area church.

“There is no love or tolerance for each other, and I think this is wrong,” Castor said. “I’m worried about the future. I’m worried about the freedom of religion and the inability to build churches. There is bias. It is unfair and unacceptable that people don’t have the freedom of worship. If the current policies continue, the hate will continue.”

The village-wide violence on Sunday harkened to sectarian violence in Upper Egypt in 2000 in the area of El Kosheh, said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts.

“This degree of radicalization is a bad sign for the future of Egypt, when there is so much hate for people who are basically peaceful and just want to pray,” said Habib.

Egypt’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship under Article 46.

“What’s the value of a statement like this if it is not put into action?” he said of Article 46, adding that when government agencies do not promote freedom of worship but instead “become agents of persecution, they make a mockery of the constitution.”

Habib also expressed dismay that a whole village took umbrage only because they suspected a prayer meeting.

“How can private worship annoy people?” he said. “They are not broadcasting it. This is not fair. I’m really annoyed. They say Islam is tolerant, but is this tolerant? This is not tolerant at all.”

Other Non-Governmental Organizations in Egypt said that they expect reconciliation meetings to take place in Ezbet Boshra-East in the coming weeks.

Report from Compass Direct News


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Uttar Pradesh, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Police on Sept. 21 arrested pastor Sunil Rana in Gonda district on an anonymous tip that “forcible conversion activities” were taking place at his church’s Sunday worship. A representative of the Evangelical Fellowship of India told Compass that at around 12:30 p.m. police came to the Believers Church to make the arrest. Pastor Rana was charged for “forceful conversion” and released on bail on Sept. 23.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 20 arrested a pastor and others in Siddapur, Uttara Kannada district on false charges of “forcible conversion.” The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the independent pastor identified only as Biju and five evangelists were speaking with children in Guya Palakere village when a local Hindu extremist identified only as Halappa angrily questioned them and falsely accused them of forcible conversions. Halappa telephoned other local extremists, and soon a mob of nearly 25 intolerant Hindus surrounded the Christians and took them to the Siddapur police station. They were charged with “hurting religious sentiments,” statements conducive to public mischief and unlawful assembly. With GCIC intervention they were released on bail on Sept. 22.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 19 sealed Bethel Church in Mysore city and detained pastor Samuel Channaiah. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at around 10:30 a.m. three policemen led by a senior official identified only as Shivaram came to the rented church and questioned Channaiah about the prayer services. Shivaram falsely accused Channaiah of forcible conversions, sealed the church and took the pastor with them to the Vijayanagar police station. With GCIC intervention, Channaiah was released at around 5 p.m. without being charged. “No Sunday worship was held on Sept. 21, and the landlord has asked Channaiah to vacate the premises,” a GCIC representative told Compass.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 17 stopped a pastor’s training program in Arsikere, Hassan district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that independent pastor Hoysala Raj was attending a four-day training at St. Thomas Church on Sept. 16-19 and staying at the Vijayalakshmi Lodge. As he was returning to the lodge after a session, a policeman identified only as Nemiraju recognized Raj, whom he had previously arrested. At around 11 p.m. Nemiraju and two other police officers came to the lodge and began beating and cursing Raj. Nemiraju then took Raj to the police station, angrily questioning him about the training program and the pastors who were attending. With GCIC intervention, Raj was released Sept. 17 at 8 p.m., and he received treatment at a private clinic for internal injuries. On Sept. 17 at around 9 a.m., police went to St. Thomas Church and forced the organizers to close down the training program.

Madhya Pradesh – Three suspected Hindu extremists vandalized and set fire to St. Peter and Paul Cathedral at Pentinaka, Sadar, Jabalpur at 8 p.m. on Sept. 18. Father Anthony Rocky said the attackers broke into the building unnoticed and broke window panes, desecrated the altar, destroyed a cross and statues and burned Bibles. “They carried kerosene oil packed in polythene bags and spread it in the entire church,” Fr. Rocky said. “Setting it aflame, they absconded.” Father Davis George, principal of the adjoining St. Aloysius College, said that bystanders informed him about the fire in the cathedral. “There is no doubt that the Dharma Sena, led by Yogesh Agarwal has done this,” Fr. George said. He told Compass that the Hindu extremist group threatened church leaders some 10 days prior, saying, “We will turn the face of the church within a week’s time, as done in Orissa.” The Dharma Sena and Agarwal have been involved in many cases of intimidation and attacks on the Christian community of Jabalpur. Father Anand Muttungal, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said Madhya Pradesh has seen more than 110 cases of violence against Christians since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in December 2003. “In spite of clear evidence, the authorities have failed to take any action against the culprits,” Fr. Muttungal told Compass. “As the elections are at hand, the authorities don’t want to annoy the majorities.”

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Sept. 7 stormed a prayer meeting in Ayodhya Nagar, near Madanapally in Chittoor district. Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said independent pastor T. Peter was blessing the new house of a widowed Christian with about 25 others present. As the prayer service was in progress, nearly 20 Hindu extremists led by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad state leader, B.R. Narendra, barged into the house shouting curses at the believers. They slapped Pastor Peter and made false allegations of forcible conversion, beating and chasing away the participants. A GCIC representative told Compass that Ravindra Babu attempted to shield Pastor Peter and the Hindu extremists repeatedly slapped and punched him, breaking two teeth. The intolerant Hindus returned to the house at around 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 8 and warned the widowed homeowner that her house would be bombed if prayer meetings continued there. Pastor Peter filed a complaint against the Hindu extremists at Madanapally police station, and the attackers concocted a complaint against the pastor for “forceful conversion.”  

Report from Compass Direct News