On Friday 3 July the villagers at the hamlet of Ezbet Girgis in al-Fashn, Beni-Sweif, some 100km south of Cairo, woke up at dawn to shrieks of “Fire! Fire!” It turned out the house of Fawzy Iskandar Hanna, which lies close to a building owned by the village church of St Yulius al-Aqfahsi, was on fire. Another neighbouring house had also caught fire and, with the fire fighters taking their time to arrive, the villagers hastened to put out the fire themselves. The cars of the village priest, Fr Samaan Shehata, and one owned by the parish were doused with kerosene, ready to set them alight. The Muslim villagers had begun an attack against the Copts in the village. The Copts were assaulted and beaten, their houses pelted with stones, an agricultural tractor owned by Melek Samir Abdel-Sayed destroyed, and four barns were torched. Four Copts were injured, among them 24-year-old Phoebe Sami who was moved to hospital with a deep cut in the head.
No other place
The Coptic villagers, some 1400 strong, had been planning to use the Church-owned house as a church, since the already-existing village church was a mere 40 square metres in area and was already dilapidated, being built 30 years ago. Seven months ago the Copts asked for permission from the security authorities to move their prayers into the new building, but the security officials objected on grounds that the building was only 40m away from a nearby mosque. Upon which the Church officials changed the design of the building so that its gate would open to a back street, meaning it would not be in the same street as the mosque.
The building, a four-storey one, was to be used to house a church, a social and health service centre, and the priest’s residence.
Anba Estefanous, bishop of Fashn, Biba, and Semesta, had attempted to negotiate with the security officials in order to grant the Copts a permit to use the new house as a church, pointing out that all throughout Egypt mosques stood beside churches. But the officials insisted the bishopric should find some other place to conduct religious rituals.
Fr Samaan says the church in Ezbet Girgis serves, besides the hamlet, four other neighbouring hamlets. Since the hamlet is surrounded on all sides by agricultural land—building on agricultural land is banned in Egypt, in order to preserve the land—there is no place outside the hamlet to build a church. So, says Fr. Samaan, it is a practical impossibility to find an alternative place for the church.
The Coptic villagers, who form some 70 per cent of the total population of the hamlet, told Watani they had been receiving threats lately that they would be attacked if they insisted on using the new building—which, incidentally, is yet unfinished—to conduct religious rites. They accused the security officials of prodding the Muslim villagers to riot in order to have a pretext to close down the would-be-church on grounds of its being a security threat. Just three days before the riots the mosque imam Sheikh Gomaa Mohamed Hassan joined two other villagers Salah Amer and Gamal Ramadan, both school teachers, in sending the Copts verbal threats through the former village priest Father Younan. They promised they would “assault and burn” the Copts if they opened the new building as a church.
The Coptic villagers reported the threats to the police, but no action was ever taken.
Charging the victims
The Copts were livid at the fact that it was the village ghafar (local guards) who led the attack, with cries of jihad—fighting in the name of Allah. Two villagers who asked for their names to be withheld, told Watani it was one of these guards, Gibril Ramadan Gomaa, who hit Phoebe Sami on the head and caused her injury.
When one villager, Mahrous Saad, told one of the security officers: “We’re not trafficking drugs, Sir; all we want is to pray,” the officer reiterated, “No, trafficking drugs would have been better.”
The police imposed a curfew on the village, and detained 13 Copts and 7 Muslims on charges of rioting. “How can we be charged with rioting,” Fr Samaan asks, “when we are the victims?”
The Girgis incident comes in the wake of a similar incident in the neighbouring village of Ezbet Bushra East. On Sunday 21 June violence erupted in Ezbet Bushra when a rumour circulated that the Coptic villagers were using the home of the village priest to hold prayer meetings. A Muslim mob attacked the house, smashing its windows and assaulting Copts with clubs and white weapons, wounding 25 Copts.
The police cut all telephone lines and Internet in the village, which is inhabited by 1500 Copts of the total 3000 inhabitants, imposed a curfew and detained 19 Copts.
Anba Estephanos Bishop of Biba, al-Fashn, and Semesta, together with other priests called for a sit-in at the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin in al-Fashn, demanding the release of the detained Copts.
A week later a ‘reconciliation’ was orchestrated between the village Copts and Muslims by the security officials and local politicians and all the detainees were freed.