Egypt’s Christians In Peril

The Christmas Eve Massacre and other attacks on the Muslim country’s religious minorities.

At midnight every January 6th, Christmas Eve Mass ends and the early hours of Christmas Day begin for the Coptic Church in Egypt. As Orthodox Christians, descendants of Egypt’s ancient Christianity that far outdates Islam, the Copts have to wait longer for Christmas festivities than those who celebrate on December 25. Perhaps to emphasize that the long-anticipated day has arrived, the Mass celebrating Christ’s birth ends with the joyous ringing of bells as Egyptian Christians, dressed in their finest clothes, head home to continue their Christmas celebrations.

It is unusual for church bells to ring before midnight. But such was the case this past January 6, 2010, at Mar Yohana (St. John’s) Church in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, the town famous for the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels. The church’s pastor, Bishop Anba Kirollos, was concerned by threats made against the Christians and decided to start Mass an hour early. At 11:00 P.M., church bells rang and worshippers streamed out the doors. It was a perfect time for an attack on the Christian community.

Three cars drove by the church and masked men with automatic weapons shot into the crowd, eyewitnesses later told the Middle East Christian Association (MECA). The cars then drove down three nearby side streets, shooting more Copts. Eight Christians were killed, six young church deacons instantly. A Muslim security guard was also killed, and many worshippers injured.

“The Muslims promised us a wonderful Christmas,” one wounded parishioner told the Coptic News Bulletin, “I think the message is received now.” All further Christmas celebrations were cancelled. In a moment’s time, one of the most joyous days of the year for Christians was transformed into a day of horror and carnage. That was as much the goal of the Muslim gunmen as the actual shootings. Christian holy days and holy places are most often targeted. Just seven months before, Muslims in the village of Higaza opened fire on worshippers leaving an Easter Eve service, killing two young men and wounding a woman.

Bishop Kirollos believes he was the intended target of the attack. "I was the one intended to be assassinated by this plot, and when it failed the criminals turned round and started shooting and finishing off the young ones," Kirollos told MECA. He received death threats over the weeks before Christmas, and told reporters from Free Copts that the Muslims wanted to “dispose of him” because he had criticized the State Security for failing to protect Christians attacked by Muslims in November in several towns within the parish of Nag Hammadi.

The November attacks took place when a local 12 year-old Muslim girl was allegedly abducted and raped by a Coptic youth. The only detail that the girl gave identifying her attacker was that he wore a black jacket. Raping Muslim girls is not the common practice of Copts, and considering the vulnerability of Christians in Egypt, including serial abduction and rape of Christian girls by Muslim men, it would be not just evil, but incredibly stupid for a Christian to commit rape. More likely, blaming a Christian who, unfortunately, wore a black jacket, served as a good excuse for a desired November rampage.

On November 21, a mob of some 3000 gathered in front of the police headquarters in Farshoot, attempting to abduct the accused Copt before his trial. When they failed, they turned their violence on the Coptic community. The mob torched Christian-owned stores and attacked Christians in Farshoot and nearby villages Kom Ahmar, Shakiki and Ezbet Waziri. According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), several Coptic women were reportedly abducted by the mobs, and many people were injured, including a priest whose skull was fractured when the mob stopped his car and assaulted him. One witness said that Muslims threw some Coptic families out of their homes and were now occupying them.

“They want the Copts to be poor and therefore are destroying the Coptic economy in these areas,” Wagih Yacoub of the Middle East Christian Association told AINA. By the evening of November 21st, all the Coptic businesses were looted and burned. Security forces did nothing to stop the mob. Witnesses said that the police just “watched the mob” and dispersed them from one street “only for them to appear in the next,” according to AINA.

Bishop Kirollos was interviewed by Free Copts at the time of the attacks. He said that the violence was “definitely pre-planned,” and revealed that many in the mob were students from the Al-Azhar Institute in Farshoot. They were “incited by their Dean who sent them out on a rampage against the Copts,” he added. He said that even if the rape accusation was true, it was committed by one person and should not result in attacks on peaceful Christians who denounced this action “that does not comply with Christian teaching.” He demanded to know why there were such “barbaric attacks by mobs” and why the security forces had not prevented them.

The November wreckage was not enough to satisfy the Islamists. Kirollos told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that some of his congregation had received cell phone calls threatening them that Muslims would “avenge the rape of the girl” during Christmas celebrations. And Kirollos received text messages telling him, “you’re next.” He asked the police to increase security for the church at Christmas, but they refused.

AINA reported that most of the witnesses of the killings believed that there was collusion between the shooters and the State Security. It was the first time that none of them attended the Christmas Eve midnight mass. "They must have known in advance of the shootings and avoided the embarrassment of participating in the festivities inside church," said one witness. Another witness told AINA, “Security came as everything was over, instead of trying to catch the criminals, they were interrogating us about the description of the cars.”

Armed with descriptions of the vehicles and the suspects, Egyptian State Security worked quickly and efficiently to round up … over 100 Coptic teenage boys. According to AINA, the police began random arrests the day after the massacre of Christian teens who were protesting the killings. On January 13 AINA reported that “multiple members of families have been arrested without warrants” with most of the arrests taking place at dawn. A Nag Hammadi teacher, Anwar Samuel, told Free Copts that State Security came looking for his nephew at four o’clock in the morning. The young man was out of the country, Samuel said, so they arrested his three other nephews instead, “and took them away in their pajamas." They were subjected to electric shocks.

AINA explained that arresting Copts after every attack against Copts “is the usual scenario.” Holding Christians from Nag Hammadi without charges, the news agency reported, is the security services' "balancing act" to pressure the church to drop the charges against the Muslim perpetrators in exchange for setting the boys free. The arrests of the Coptic teenagers specifically was meant to pressure Bishop Kirollos into recanting his past statements on the role of State Security in the attacks. Some families reported that their sons were tricked into going to the police station when police told them that Bishop Kirollos “wanted them to do so for their safety.”

The three Muslim men who were responsible for the Christmas Eve massacre were arrested two days after the killings. The main suspect, Mohamed El-Kamony is known as a hired killer and has been used by political candidates to intimidate voters in Nag Hammadi, according to AINA. A Dream Team of 25 Muslim attorneys is set to the defend the killers, claiming they acted as they did to avenge the “honor” of Muslims for the rape. Everyone knows how important honor is to Islamists -- so important that girl victims themselves are usually shot, stabbed, stoned, or buried alive by a concerned male family member for honor’s sake.

A sympathetic court will give a light, if any, sentence, and the killers will soon be released. Meanwhile, the police attempt to force the church and Coptic Christians to accept ‘reconciliation,’ in which Coptic victims give up all criminal and civil charges against the perpetrators. Eighty of the young Christians are still being held without charge.

The Christmas Eve killings and detention of the Egyptian Christians stirred outrage around the world, mostly by Copts who have fled Egypt and its persecution to live elsewhere. In Washington, DC, Toronto, Tampa, Seattle, New York, and elsewhere, Copts held public demonstrations. But the official response from both Egypt and from other governments, including the United States, has been lacking.

The Egyptian government has taken pains to portray the Christmas Eve murders as “criminal acts” with no tinge of sectarianism. Speaking to the Almasry Alyom newspaper, Mufid Shehab, the minister of legal affairs insisted that “no religious dimension should be attached to this incident, only a criminal one.” The Christmas Eve killings were not terrorism, just man-caused disaster.

AINA reported that the head of the Egyptian Parliament, Dr. Fathi Sourour, completely “misrepresented the facts” of the incident in an interview with BBC Arabic on January 31. Fathi said that “the Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that this crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.” The girl, who is alive, is scheduled to appear in court on February 17 in the rape trial. “Copts were shocked and angered by this statement which they consider to be another lie propagated by the government to trigger another wave of Muslim attacks against them,” AINA said.

The U.S. government, on the other hand, did not deny the sectarian impetus for the killings. On January 14 the AFP reported that U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael Posner, expressed the United States’ concern about the “tragic events in Nag Hammadi," and that they revealed “an atmosphere of intolerance.” Further, said Posner, who was on his first State trip to Egypt, "There needs to be prosecution... there needs to be a break in the sense of impunity and there needs to be justice.”

But although Posner denounced such human rights abuses in Egypt as emergency law, prison conditions, torture, and religious freedom violations, he said "we know that in any society change occurs from within... It's an Egyptian discussion." The AFP report, posted by Free Copts, noted that Barack Obama has “placed less emphasis on political reform in the region than his predecessor George W. Bush.” The Obama administration’s rhetoric “has backed away from Bush’s robust calls for Egypt to release dissidents and ensure fair elections,” the AFP report concluded. Granting that there is a sectarian aspect to the treatment of the Copts and other religious minorities, the Obama Administration does not see it as a systemic problem in Islam but as something that can be resolved by an “Egyptian discussion.”

In Congress, on the other hand, some robust calls for the reform of Egypt sometimes are still issued. U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), a long-time defender of human rights and religious freedom, introduced a resolution in the first session of this Congress “calling on the Egyptian Government to respect human rights and freedoms of religion and expression in Egypt.” .

After first acknowledging Egypt’s significance in the Middle East peace process and the fight against international terrorism and “fundamentalism,” the resolution is a laundry list of human rights violations. It notes the persecution of Copts and other religious minorities such as Ba’hai, Koranists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Egypt, as well as identifying government endorsed or tolerated written and recorded material vilifying Jews, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It mentions imprisoned bloggers, threats against democratic reform, and the violence against Sudanese refugees trying to flee from Egypt into Israel. The resolution also urges the President and the Secretary of State “to put human rights and religious freedom developments in Egypt very high on the U.S. government's agenda during meetings with Egyptian officials.”

The bi-partisan resolution had garnered 32 co-sponsors when it was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 26, 2009. But it has never emerged from that committee. In light of the most recent attacks in Nag Hammadi and the extrajudicial arrests and detainments of Coptic young people that followed, it is time for pressure on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to take action on Egypt’s human rights abuses. No piece of legislation is a magic pill, especially a non-binding resolution. But it is a first step, it would raise the issues, and it would provide opportunity for briefings and hearings on the condition of Copts and other minorities in Egypt. Such efforts are needed to convince the Egyptian government that America is still committed to human rights and religious freedom.