Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Copts still under attack

One year after the Maspero tragedy, the targeting of Coptic citizens and churches is continuing, reports Dina Ezzat

It has been a sad week for Egyptian Copts. Tuesday marked the first anniversary of the carnage when some 20 Copts were killed by army officers and soldiers during a Coptic rights demonstration outside the Radio and TV building at Maspero in Cairo last year, and there have been various other sources of Coptic grief.

In Rafah on Egypt's eastern border, the house of a Coptic family was fired on on Saturday amid verbal threats from assailants whose identity is still unknown. And in Rosetta in the Delta on Sunday an attack targeted a Coptic church and destroyed a good part of its interior for reasons apparently related to a property dispute.

"Magdi Nairouz, whose house was attacked, is one of the citizens who refused to quit Rafah when the radical Islamists were threatening Copts that they should leave or be killed over a week ago," said Father Mikhail of the Rafah church.

Last week, there was a public outcry when alleged radical jihadists who have been at war with the state made threats to Coptic families to leave Rafah or to face physical extermination.

Several families left, though some returned following the intervention and reassurances of the state at the highest levels, but other families declined to leave.

"Magdi Nairouz spoke out about his determination not to leave come what may, and I guess that the bullet shots were a message not just to him but to other families who had shown defiance in the face of forced eviction threats," Father Mikhail said, adding that the fact that Nairouz had a ground-floor apartment "made him an easy target".

Father Mikhail denied accounts on social networks that had suggested that other Coptic families in Rafah had been subject to similar attacks this week. "It was just this house, but it is important to realise that attacking one family makes many others scared," he said, adding that following the attack "the already intensified security presence was scaled up."

"However, as I said last week attending to the matter in an incident-based approach is not the right way to address the problem, especially in Rafah where the targets of the radicals are not just Copts," Father Mikhail said.

Last week, Father Mikhail had told Al-Ahram Weekly that establishing a police station at Rafah could be a more effective deterrent than the intensified security presence that comes with any specific attack.

He also spoke of the need to reconstruct the demolished part of the Rafah church that was attacked by radical militants in the wake of the end of the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. 

"We have been made one promise after another that the church will be rebuilt, but these promises remain to be executed," Father Mikhail said.

Last week, a mass was tentatively scheduled to celebrate the return of some of the families that had fled Rafah in fear and to pray for peace. "The mass was of course cancelled following the new attack, as the fear has returned," Father Mikhail said, adding that news of the attack on a church in Rosetta had augmented the sense of insecurity.

The Rosetta attack, according to journalist and Coptic activist Nader Shukri, was the result of a dispute over property. The church was established in the 19th century for Roman Orthodox Christians, but was eventually handed to the Coptic Orthodox Church as there were no Roman Orthodox in the city.

In 1990, a judge named Mohamed Kamel started a legal process to affirm his acquisition of stores annexed to the church as a result of a contract supposedly signed with the church's vicar.

Shukri said that in 2008 Kamel, closely associated with the previously ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), attempted to demolish the stores around the church and parts of the church to free the property for construction.

"He told the office of the Coptic patriarch in Cairo that he was willing to let go of the church and the land it was built on in return for LE20 million," Shukri said. The offer was categorically declined by the Coptic Church, however.

The Weekly tried to contact Kamel, who was not taking calls. An associate said that "it is a matter for the courts to settle."

According to Shukri, legal hearings are scheduled on the matter for next month, "and it is not just the church that is calling for an end of the demolition, but also Muslim citizens whose stores are under threat of destruction."

He said that it was "such a relief that this matter is bringing Copts and Muslims together at a time when so much is tearing them apart in other parts of Egypt. The lawyer litigating on behalf of the Rosetta church is a Muslim lawyer," he added.

Copts and Muslims, few as the latter might be, joined hands on Tuesday in a silent march from the predominantly Coptic neighbourhood of Shobra in Cairo to the Radio and TV building to mark the death of the martyrs on 9 October 2011.

The march was marked with funeral hymns, and the participants carried pictures of those who had been killed and called for an end to impunity.

"Today, we are still waiting for justice to be done and for the law to be applied. Those who have been killing Egyptians, whether Copts or Muslims, since the early days of the 25 January Revolution have to be called to justice," Shukri said.

He acknowledged "the deep and legitimate fears of the Copts about whether they have been personally targeted because in general it seems that the state is not taking a firm stance on their equal rights."

"This is all it takes to attend to the grievances of the Copts today: to make sure that the laws are fair and that they are fairly and firmly applied to all," said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, an international NGO.

Acknowledging that the history of anti-Coptic attacks in Egypt did not start when President Mohamed Morsi, associated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, was inaugurated as president last summer, Morayef said that "the approach of the state today to Coptic grievances is not different from that used during the rule of former president Mubarak".

The endless accommodation of problems rather than their resolution, Morayef said, should come to an end.

"The state should make a priority of issuing laws to underline the principles of equal citizenship and to make sure that these laws are applied. This is the real deterrence: a show of zero tolerance from the state to all forms and acts of discrimination or intimidation."

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