Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 May 2007
Issue No. 846
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Damage limitation

Attempts at reconciliation in the troubled village of Bimha aim to contain, rather than resolve, sectarian tensions, reports Pierre Loza

A meeting between Christian and Muslim residents of Bimha, south of Giza in the Ayat district, was held 16 May after riots led to 10 Christians being hospitalised on 11 May. The meeting took place at the Ayat Sporting Club. Three people were delegated from each side to discuss compensating Christian families who lost 36 homes and seven businesses to fires started by rioters. The disturbances began following Friday prayers. Earlier, pamphlets had been distributed in the village calling on Muslims to protest against the building of a church in the area.

"Three people from each side sat together and calculated that the losses incurred by Christian villagers amounted to LE500,000. Then Father Hanna Makin, the parish priest, announced that the families concerned would waive their claims as a gesture of good will," said Ali El-Soudi, Ayat's representative in the People's Assembly. The delegates also resolved that Bimha's Christian community should continue to worship in the homes of Atif and Arian Youssef as happened in the past.

"Our Christian brethren have forfeited their complaints in the spirit of forgiveness, and we will take steps to release 20 detained Muslims," said El-Soudi.

In an effort to keep dialogue between villagers, a meeting has been scheduled on 24 May in Bimha, with the governor of Giza present. "Although our Christian brethren have agreed not to file cases against the 20 detainees the prosecutor's office needs to drop all criminal charges to help pacify the village further," El-Soudi added. In an attempt to foster reconciliation, half a tonne of sugar was donated by an Al-Azhar cleric. The proceeds will go to aid families that lost their homes and belongings in the riots.

"The response to the rioting in Bimha is unlikely to prevent the outbreak of more sectarian crises in Egypt," says Nabil Abdel-Fattah, deputy director of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Abdel-Fattah believes the 16 May meeting was an attempt to mollify tensions rather than confront the problem. Attempts to foster sectarian reconciliation, he says, too often rely on a traditionalist, cultural approach, with disputes settled by elders and community leaders in a way that lacks due legal perspective and simply reflects the balance of power on the ground. "It effectively prevents the implementation of the rule of law," argues Abdel-Fattah, who insists wrong-doers must be held legally accountable if others are to be deterred from taking similar actions.

The majority of Bimha's Christians say they support the decision of the church leadership not to accept compensation.

"How can I accept money from someone who beat me and burned my house? It would be like being paid for the abuse. At the end of the day we all live together and we will continue to do so for generations to come," said one Christian Bimha resident who asked for his name to be withheld.

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