EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

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EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: TORTURED CHRISTIAN LANGUISHING ON FALSE CHARGES


Police maneuver to keep incapacitated son of preacher in jail – and out of hospital.

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 23 (Compass Direct News) – A 37-year-old Christian is languishing in a Sialkot jail after police broke his backbone because his father was preaching Christ, according to a local advocacy group.

Arshad Masih had been in a hospital – chained to his bed on false robbery charges – after police torture that began Dec. 28, 2008 left him incapacitated. He was discharged from General Hospital in Lahore on Saturday (June 20) and returned to jail despite efforts by the Community Development Initiative (CDI), a support group that is providing Masih legal assistance.

CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum said that hospital personnel treated Masih callously, but that conditions there were better than in the jail in Sialkot. At least in the hospital, Qayyum said, Masih’s gray-haired father was able to carry him on his shoulders when he needed to go to the bathroom.

Hospital staff members released Masih even though they knew he would not receive the medical care he needs in jail and could face further abuse, the CDI researcher said.

“We told the hospital administration and doctors that Masih would be released from jail within a few days, so he should not be discharged from the hospital as he would not be taken care of in jail, but they paid no heed to our request,” Qayyum said.

He said Sialkot police gave assurances that Masih would be released from jail if he arrived there from the hospital by 10 p.m. A police van left early Saturday morning from Sialkot to bring Masih from the hospital in Lahore to Sialkot jail, but it did not reach the hospital until 6 p.m. even though it is only 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Sialkot to Lahore.

Qayyum said officers also invented delays on the return trip.

“Despite our requests to the police van staff, they reached the jail at 10:30 p.m.,” Qayyum said. “The Sialkot police used the delays to demoralize us by creating problems so that we do not file a petition for torturing.”

The CDI official said the group’s first priority is to “take him out of Sialkot so that police may not further create problems for him.”

Murder Threat

Hajipura police detained Masih on Dec. 28 on orders from the Sadar police station in Gujranwala, where Masih’s father, Iqbal Masih, had been preaching Christ.

The elder Masih, an itinerant preacher who has traveled to remote areas to proclaim Christ for three decades, told Compass that objections to his ministry led to false accusations of robbery against his son. Area Muslims resented his preaching and his visits to a Christian family in Gujranwala, he said, and told him to stop visiting the family.

“They told me that I was preaching a false religion and should stop doing it, and that I should succumb to their pressure,” the elder Masih told Compass.

Area Muslims had complained to Gujranwala police of the elder Masih’s efforts, and officers there first sought to arrest him in a case filed against “unidentified people,” he said. Later, he said, Gujranwala police told Hajipura police to charge his son in some robbery cases, as Arshad Masih lived in the Hajipura precincts.

When police arrested Arshad Masih on Dec. 28, they tortured him for several days, the younger Masih said.

“They hung me upside down all night, beat me and used all inhumane torture methods, leaving me permanently paralyzed,” he said.

Police falsely named him in a robbery case, according to CDI. All others named in the case were released after paying bribes, advocacy group officials said. Police officers also asked Masih’s father for a bribe of 50,000 rupees [US$620], the elder Masih said.

“They asked me as well for 50,000 rupees, but I refused to pay on the grounds that it was illegal and additionally I hadn’t that much money,” Iqbal Masih said.

The complainant in the robbery case eventually testified that Arshad Masih hadn’t been among the robbers, and he was granted bail. Before court orders reached the jail, however, Sialkot police informed Sadar police officers in Gujranwala, who arrived at the jail and had Masih remanded to them for a robbery case filed against “unidentified people.”

“Because of that, Masih could not be freed for one moment,” CDI’s Qayyum said.

Gujranwala police also threatened to kill Masih in a staged police encounter if he told the court that he had been tortured, according to CDI. They also warned him that he should not act as if he were in any pain in court.

The court, however, found him unable to stand and sent him to Allama Iqbal Memorial Hospital in Sialkot for medical examination. Gujaranwala police therefore had to leave him. But police did not tell Masih or CDI staff which police station was keeping Masih in its custody at the hospital.

With the help of the American Center for Law and Justice, CDI filed a case in the Gujranwala Sessions court for Masih’s bail and also provided some assistance for his medical treatment.

On June 16, the Sadar police station investigating officer told the court that police under his command were not detaining Masih, but that the Sialkot police were. Because the Gujranwala police were not detaining him, he argued, bail orders issued on March 23 for Masih’s release pertained to Sialkot and therefore Masih’s police custody in the hospital was illegal.

“The police have been keeping us in the dark so that we could never pursue the case in the right direction,” said CDI’s Qayyum. “How can a brutally tortured patient even heal their wounds in such mental agony when his hand is always tied in chains, and two policemen are maintaining a 24-hour watch over him?”

The researcher said he maintained hope that the judicial system would provide Masih relief from his agony, which has taken its toll on his family as well. Masih has three children that he has pulled from school due to lack of money.

His wife is illiterate and cannot make a living, CDI officials said, adding that Masih’s four married sisters are the main sources of his financial support.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: MUSLIMS ATTACK PASTOR’S HOME, RELATIVES


After shooting into air, assailants strike mother, sister-in-law with rifle butts.

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 12 (Compass Direct News) – In a growing culture of violence here, a traffic incident in Punjab Province this month led to Muslim assailants later mounting an attack on the home of a Christian pastor they have increasingly resented for his evangelism and justice ministries. The attackers threatened more violence if the pastor does not drop assault charges.

A few of the 17 assailants struck the mother and sister-in-law of pastor Riaz Masih with rifle butts after the pastor’s brother, who lives at the same multi-housing complex as Masih in Kila Sardar Shah, Sheikhupura district, on June 1 complained to a local councilor about the official nearly driving into his sons. Christian leaders said the roadside incident was only the fuse igniting hostilities that have grown due to meetings held by Christ for All Nations Ministries (CANM).

The meetings have attracted many youths, including some Muslims. Pastor Masih is national coordinator of CANM, a self-supported church-planting ministry. Saqib Munawar, chairman of CANM, said the attack on the pastor’s home in the remote village is an indication that as Islamic extremism rises amid a military attempt to flush Islamic militants from the Swat Valley in the country’s northwest, a growing culture of violence means minor incidents more easily erupt into attacks.

“As the Swat operation is going on, hostilities against Christians are on the rise,” Munawar said. “Extremism, which has flourished in the last few decades, is now creating problems for all Pakistanis. This attitude has promoted violence in the country.”

Pakistanis are becoming more violent, he said, and extremism has increased partially in response to evangelism efforts by Christians, he said.

In the triggering incident, pastor Masih’s 17- and 18-year-old nephews were standing on the side of a road with their backs to traffic in Kila Sardar Shah when Malik Younus, a village councilor, passed in a vehicle that nearly struck them. The teenagers immediately complained to Younus that he should have at least honked to warn them to step aside.

Younus got out of his vehicle and beat them, Munawar said. They complained to their father, Mushtaq Masih, who then called Younus. Younus threatened to beat them again, and Mushtaq Masih responded that he would have no choice but to call police. Younus became furious, according to Munawar.

Within an hour Younus, his brother Malik Falak Sher and 15 other men armed with automatic weapons and wooden clubs arrived at the multi-family complex where Pastor Masih and his brothers live with their families. The pastor was some distance from home when his 12-year-old daughter called and told him that the Muslim attackers were outside firing into the air.

Rushing to the scene, Masih approached the house from the backyard as the assailants were breaking down the main gate. The pastor managed to lock himself with members of his family inside a room, but his sister-in-law – wife of his younger brother Ilias Masih – and his mother were outside at the time.

Having broken down the main gate and wall and had entered the courtyard, the assailants struck the two women with rifle butts and demanded to know where the boys and their father were. Pastor’s Masih’s brother, Mushtaq Masih, had also locked himself and his family in a room. The attackers were trying to break down the doors of rooms in pastor Masih’s home when one of them called off the assault and they left.

The family reported the assault to police, but officers have done nothing as they have close ties with the attackers – and the assailants also have links with various local government leaders, Munawar said. The intruding Muslims warned pastor Masih and his family that if they contacted police and media, they would face “retribution.”

The Station House Officer told Compass that Younus and his cohorts had been released on bail; he would not comment further.

Munawar said the Masih families will likely seek a settlement instead of jail terms.

“The family will probably go for an out-of-court settlement, as they have to live,” he said. “However, fears are that such flare-ups may hit back, which would certainly hamper our evangelical efforts.”

Rumors spread that a former member of the Punjab Assembly, Agha Gull, was involved in the traffic incident, but Gull told Compass that he was in Iraq at the time of the incident and had nothing to do with it. Gull said someone told him that a clash took place on the road, but that “none of the parties came to me.”

Justice Ministry

Certain that the remote village Muslims would not have access to Compass news, pastor Masih told Compass that the antagonists were upset with him also over his efforts to take back lands stolen from Christian families. There are four Christian families in the village of 40 to 50 families.

The Christian villagers had paid for land they have lived on since 1989, but they never received documents for the transfer, leaving the real estate in the hands of Muslim businessman Syed Izhar Shah – whom villagers say is involved in land theft in collaboration with those who instigated the June 1 attack, Younus and his brother Sher.

Last year pastor Masih offered 20,000 rupees (US$250) to the landowner to legally transfer the property with proper documentation, but the owner declined. Pastor Masih’s father has also paid some 10,000 rupees for his share of the land. Additionally, Akram Masih, who heads one of the four Christian families in the area, has paid an additional 27,000 rupees (US$335) in an effort to legally obtain his share of the land, but the landowner forbid him to take possession as well.

Younus and Sher are behind a land-grab designed to drive the few Christian families from the area, pastor Masih said. They have illegally taken over a nearby, eight-acre tract of land zoned for a housing tract called Royal Town. Christian villagers had paid for this land also in 1989 – and also without receiving documentation – and the legal land owner, Syed Izhar Shah, is pressuring them to either pay the current price or leave the village, pastor Masih said.

“The attack has been unleashed on the weakest, because there are only four Christian families living in this village,” said pastor Masih. “They are vexing us so that we leave the area.”

Pastor Munawar said that anti-Christian hostilities resulted in the cancellation of CANM’s youth program, which was scheduled for last Monday (June 8).

“The fate of our next program, scheduled on June 21, is also hanging in balance,” he said.

Munawar added that last year’s annual youth program, held in May, had been secured by armed Christians after an area Muslim tipped them off that their worship could be targeted. The guards were provided licensed .222 Remington rifles.

Report from Compass Direct News