43. When hate reigns

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Comments on sectarian tensions during the time that Copts are celebrating Easter.

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For Copts, the fortnight preceding Easter is usually a busy, happy time of preparation for the major feast of the Resurrection and the pharaonic-old spring feast of Sham al-Nessim. This year, however, the happy expectation was marred by incidents of sectarian hatred in two villages some 500 kilometres apart along the eternal Nile valley. Palm Sunday attack In the village of Qasr Hur close to the monastery of Abu-Fana in Minya some 250km south of Cairo, Copts were celebrating Palm Sunday in the village church. As Holy Mass ended early afternoon, the congregation began leaving the church and heading to their homes, in preparation for the evening Pascha service which is held every evening during Passion Week. The last group to leave was suddenly attacked by a group of men carrying sticks and clubs. Five Copts were injured: Samuel Kamel, Ashraf Menassa, Ishaq Nessim, Hany Samir and Bahá Samir.
Bahá Samir told Watani that, as he left church together with his wife, brothers and sisters and cousins, a young man who belongs to the group of Samir Abu-Luli, and who was riding a bicycle, hit a young woman walking home with them. “Before we could tell what the matter was all about,” Samir said, “We found ourselves surrounded by no less than 12 men with sticks and clubs, who attacked us. Several of us were injured; I suffered a bone injury in my hand.” When they went to report the incident to the police, the five injured men were all detained. “Our attackers had inflicted slight injuries upon themselves and accused us of having caused them,” Samir said. “For heaven’s sake”, he exclaimed, “How could we have been in church with sticks or clubs to use to injure our attackers? How could we have anticipated an attack in the first place? We come from a well-known family in the village; our family has always been peace-loving and respectable, never trouble makers.” Attacker scot-free Five Muslims were also detained and, later in the day, an official reconciliation was signed between both parties. Passion Week and Easter celebrations went on uninterrupted in church, but the Copts are furious. “The incident was no ‘individual fight’ as the police would have us believe,” said one villager who asked to remain anonymous. “It was incited by hate. This is not the first nor will it be the last such incident here, as long as the police turn a blind eye to Samir Abu-Luli and his gang.”
Qasr Hur is a mere three kilometres away from the fourth century monastery of Abu-Fana, the monk cells which were last January attacked and severely damaged by Abu-Luli and his gang. The attackers went scot-free as in so many sectarian attacks; Abu-Luli is said to be a police informant. Following the incident, which was not the first of its kind, Minya governor issued a decision allowing the monastery to build a wall around its grounds—which the monastery had for years been trying to do—but in effect the monastery has to date not been allowed to build it.
And the significant question remains: Till when will sectarian attackers face no retribution? Till when will victim and offender be treated equally by the police? Some hamlet Ezbet Adam, literally Adam’s hamlet, in Qena 750km south of Cairo, is in a class of its own among Egypt’s villages and hamlets. It started off more than half a century ago as a cluster of homes of a few Coptic families, but ended up today as a fenced enclosure of 15 Copts’ houses surrounded by some 60 Muslims’ homes. Hostility reigns between the Copts and the Muslims who, according to Umm-Mina, an old Coptic resident, “bought land around us, built homes, but refused to live with us in neighbourly peace. Now they say they want us to leave because they want no Christian in their midst.”
In mid-April a Coptic family who had a new baby held the time-honoured sobou (seventh day) celebration for the infant. Surprisingly, some Muslim children and young people came in; the celebrating family welcomed them in traditional rural hospitality with cold drinks and sweets. A few minutes later they left, following which the Copts found themselves assailed with a deluge of stones, and a violent attack started. Three Copts were injured, among whom was 60-year-old Naima Abdel-Malak who lost her eye.
Nessim Farag, who lives in the nearby town of Nag Hamadi and was invited to the sobou said they were taken unawares by the attack. “Their children came in, had the cold drinks and sweets and left, then the stones and violence began. We took the women and children indoors to protect them, called the police but no one came to our rescue. The attack continued and Naima lost her eye. Then the police came; we were handcuffed and held even though we were the victims, and later we were forced to sign an official reconciliation while the attackers were not in any way penalised.” Leave your homes Sameh Ramzy, a resident of Ezbet Adam, said there was no apparent reason for the attack. “We are labourers who travel to Nag Hamadi every day for work. We own nothing in the world but these mud-brick homes. All we want is to live here in peace. We will not leave our homes as they tell us to do.” Another hamlet resident, Shenouda Shawqy, complained that the recent attack was in no way out of the ordinary. “Whenever we pass along in the hamlet on our way home we are insulted and cursed,” Shawqy said, “And our daughters and sisters harassed. This occurs even if we try to offer them peace; a ‘good morning’ from us is only met with a string of abuse.
“They say that we Christians are not to hold any celebration without permission from them. They say that, as Muslims, they hold patronage over us. Naturally, this is not something we are willing to accept.”
Indeed the recent attack appears in no way out of the ordinary. During celebrations of a recent Coptic wedding, Sarwat Adel, recalled, the Copts were attacked and their motorcycles damaged. “This is the third attack that ends up with Copts and Muslims held in the police station and forced to ‘reconcile’. Yet as soon as we are out the Muslims resume their belligerent behaviour and the police do nothing to stop them.” Fight the hatred “We built the fencing wall around our homes three years ago,” an old woman told Watani. “We had to protect ourselves and especially our daughters from the Muslims’ increasingly offensive behaviour. They once circulated a rumour that we had abducted a young man and forced him to convert to Christianity and marry one of our daughters. How on earth could we have forced any of them to do anything while we are entirely overpowered by them? It was a ridiculous rumour, but they were only using it as a pretext to attack us, make life for us here unendurable, and force us to leave.”
The Copts of Ezbet Adam demand nothing but to be left to dwell in their homes in dignity and peace. This should be the effort of civil society organisations, as well as popular and official parties, to sponsor peace between the Coptic and Muslim residents of the hamlet, and to spread awareness of the detrimental effect of hate on all of them. The hatred should not be left to eat them all up, which it definitely will do.

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