Alarming incidents in Dahshour
While the Muslim-Coptic confrontations in Dahshour may not have been only sectarian in nature, they drew on an alarming record of hostility, reports Dina Ezzat
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Images of a city living in fear: riot police with their gear and police vans stand guard; the barren clay abode emptied of a family which fled the violence; despite the clash, children play; a burnt out store
"I had read a couple of pages of my bible and put it under the pillow. I was beginning to fall asleep and thought I was having a nightmare, but then I became fully awake and heard angry voices screaming and threatening terrifying things. I immediately jumped out of bed and rushed to the hen house to hide. I stayed there in the dark, praying to the Virgin Mary and Mar Girgis to come to rescue me," recalled Samiha, a resident, of the "night of terror" that hit the village of Dahshour near Cairo last week in an episode of Coptic-Muslim confrontation.
Throughout her 70 years, Samiha, a single woman with no immediate family and only distant relatives, has seen quite a lot of hardship and pain. However, the horror that she went through in Dahshour last week is a bitter reminder of the civil unease that has hit Egypt in recent months.
Samiha was the only Copt to stay behind in the village after others had fled fearing attacks by angry Muslims in the wake of the accidental killing of a young Muslim man as he was trying to end a fight between a Muslim and a Copt.
"They left me behind, taking their dogs and hens with them. They forgot that I was still there all alone. But I was not alone, as God was with me," the elderly woman said, whose house is next to the Mar Girgis Church, deserted by its priest and his family.
According to Samiha, the fear of the village's Coptic families was immense as the angry relatives and friends of Moaz, the young Muslim man who died in hospital after being treated for burns sustained after inflammable liquid was thrown onto him in the fight, began to threaten to attack.
The fight had begun when Sameh Sami, who runs an ironing service, had burnt a shirt belonging to a Muslim client and had allegedly reacted aggressively when blamed. As Sami and his client were fighting over the shirt, and, according to Muslim residents, attempts by Sami to harass the client's wife, Moaz tried to end the quarrel as he was on his way home from prayers in the village mosque.
According to villagers, a neighbour of Sami's then threw inflammable liquid at Moaz. "This guy [Sami] has always been a problem. He is not from this village, but came to live here a few years ago and since then he has caused a lot of trouble," Samiha said, adding that the village priest, Father Takla, had spoken to him on various occasions, but to no avail.
Once Moaz had been rushed to hospital, a climate of fear reigned over the village, she said. "Father Takla called on all the Copts to fast and pray for him so that he would be saved. We did so, but it was God's will that he should be taken from us," Samiha said.
Two days later, news reached the village that Moaz had died in hospital. "People cried, and there was a widespread sense of fear. However, I said that one has to accept the will of God. It was sad, but that was God's will," she said.
On her way to buy bread for herself and her neighbours, Samiha prayed for the soul of Moaz to rest in peace. "I went and bought the bread for everyone, and when I came back I was shocked to learn that they had all left and forgotten me. But I said to myself if God is with me then I don't need anything and I gave away some of the bread to some Muslim neighbours and went home," Samiha recalled.
That evening, Moaz's family returned from the young man's funeral, and the anger was palpable. Reda, a resident, said that "Moaz's family and friends could not overcome their shock at his death and started attacking the houses of Copts."
These attacks, qualified as "an unfortunate show of anger prompted by the loss of Moaz" by Reda, were described by Samiha as "terrifying and devilish attacks as she looked into the face of a police officer and Salafi neighbours as she spoke to the Weekly.
The hostility shown between the two communities was unprecedented, with both Samiha and Reda stressing the otherwise good and friendly relations between Copts and Muslims in Dahshour. An elderly Muslim neighbour, Umm Mohamed, had even "insisted that I did not spend the night alone in the house and that I sleep with her in her house," Samiha said.
However, behind such statements of Coptic-Muslim friendship, there has been evidence of hostility and dislike between the two communities, perhaps particularly among younger people.
"Apart from this ironing man and his family, all the other Copts are very kind people and never the origin of any problems," said Hoda, a neighbour of Sami's. However, Hoda also said that she had had "no contact with any of the families that left after the burial of Moaz. They are very kind and everything, but they live and let live and so do we. We don't exchange greetings much, just on feast days and that sort of thing."
Samira, an 11-year-old girl, said almost proudly that she had no Coptic friends at school. "The Coptic girls are in a class on their own. They play together and talk together. We don't talk to them," she said.
Most of the houses of Coptic families in Dahshour are near one another and at a distance from the houses of Muslim families, except for the store and house of Sami, which was in the middle of the Muslim houses.
Muslim residents of Dahshour insist that they did not "force anyone to leave the village" and argue that nothing would have happened to the Coptic families had they stayed on. The threats against them had just been expressions of anger, and the burned and apparently looted houses just the result of actions by "a few angry young men".
The fact that the Coptic families left was not unusual, Muslim residents said, as when someone is killed or hurt the family of the person involved in the killing should go away for a while until the grief of the family and relatives of the deceased has ended.
When the Coptic families come back, the same Muslim residents said, they will not experience any problems. A statement from Egypt's presidency earlier this week suggested that the Coptic families were now "on their way back to their houses".
For his part, President Mohamed Mursi has dismissed the "sectarian nature of the problem" and insisted, as his predecessor ousted former president Hosni Mubarak used to do in similar incidents, that the Dahshour attack was "an isolated incident" that says nothing about wider Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt.
However, according to researcher Suleiman Shafik, the Dahshour incident is the ninth involving attacks on Copts in the governorate of Giza to the south of Cairo.
The first incident occurred in the north Giza quarter of Omraniya in December 2010 and had to do with the construction of a church that was contested by the local authorities, which said that it was being built without the proper permits. The latter are needed to build churches, but they are not required to build mosques.
"These two incidents and other similar ones that have occurred in Giza in less than two years indicate growing sectarianism and an anti-Coptic attitude," Shafik said, adding that while such incidents were once the result of socio-economic tension, today there is "a clear sectarian element, manifested in the forced eviction of the Coptic families despite the official narrative that these families left their houses out of their own free will."
"They left because they feared for their lives. If they had stayed, they would have been killed, and nobody would have protected them, given that the police were there when the attacks on the houses started and did nothing to prevent them. The state is letting Coptic citizens down badly," said a source at the office of the acting Coptic Patriarch, who has himself expressed dismay at the reaction of the authorities to the events in Dahshour.
The delayed intervention of the police has also been the subject of criticisms abroad, with Western observers expressing concern to the Egyptian authorities over the position of the Copts in Egypt and suggesting that the police may be deliberately withholding protection from Coptic citizens.
"We have told them that there has been a drop in police performance in general and that this is not an indication of any anti-Coptic sentiment on the part of the police," said an Egyptian official in response to such concerns.
However, President Mursi's commitment to protect all citizens irrespective of their creed is now considered to be less convincing, especially to the Coptic Church, the official caretaker of Coptic citizens.
There have also been concerns expressed by the Copts themselves, some of whom have complained of growing hostility, and by civil society groups that have criticised the reaction of the authorities and the police to the anti-Coptic attacks that have taken place over recent years and since the Omraniya incident under the rule of former president Mubarak.
The latter often portrayed himself and his regime as the protector of the Copts against the hostility of radical Muslim groups in Egypt.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO, has been critical of the state's failure to protect Coptic citizens, and an EIPR report on Dahshour is likely to blame the police and the authorities for their failures.
"What it boils down to is that the law is not applied properly and the state is basically ineffective," said academic activist Samer Attallah, who insists that the Copts should be provided with proper protection by the state and should not be made to feel that they have no other protector than the Coptic Church.
"They are Egyptian citizens, and their protection is the responsibility of the state. The role of the Church is to provide spiritual support," Attallah said. "The continuing failure of the state to live up to its responsibilities amounts to an invitation for these attacks to continue and the aggravation of civil anger."
Neither Attallah nor Shafik associated the Islamist affiliation of the new head of state to the perceived threats to the Coptic community in Egypt, both men, both of them Copts, saying that similar incidents had occurred during the Mubarak years.
Moreover, both men said that despite the sectarian aspect of the Dahshour incident, it had been similar to the attacks carried out by thugs on an upscale hotel and shopping mall in Cairo a few days before, as well as the Rafah incident some days later.