The Copts of the town of Dairut in Assiut, Upper Egypt, were victims of fierce attacks by the Muslim townspeople last weekend. The violence began on Saturday 24 October once it was known in town that the prosecution had extended the detention of four Muslims who had been charged with killing the 61-year-old Copt Henry Farouq Attallah and injuring two Muslims the week before.
Attallah’s 29-year-old son Malak who goes by the name of Romani, is married and has two children. He had been having an affair with a 17-year-old Muslim girl from the local Hassouna clan. Rumours circulated that Romani had posted indecent pictures of the girl on the Internet. As the affair became public and her family got wind of it the young man fled the town. In retaliation the Hassounas opened fire on the senior Attallah and killed him on 16 October. Two Muslim bystanders were injured and moved to hospital.
The scared Attallahs left Dairut to some unknown destination.
The Saturday riots, which lasted from 11:00am to 3:00pm were directed against the Copts in the town. To cries of “There is no God but Allah” the Copts’ businesses, property, and homes were thrown with stones and rocks, broken into and looted. Attempts to arson the church failed, but the façade and windows of two churches were broken and damaged. Coptic girls and women—easily spotted since they wear no hijab (veil) were harassed and assaulted. Parents begged the schools to keep their daughters on the school premises and not let them out to go home until the riots subsided. For four full hours the police could not contain the riots, till additional security forces were sent from Assiut.
Worth noting is that the police was wary of riots occurring following Friday prayers the day before, so had heightened security in Dairut. But the day passed peacefully and security went back to normal.Following Saturday’s riots the police caught some 30 Muslims and charged them with rioting and damaging property.
The innocent pay
Several pharmacies were destroyed, as were hairdresser shops, groceries, mobile phone shops, garment stores, and other Coptic-owned businesses.
Hany Hakim, who owns a pharmacy which he runs during the evenings while his wife Haidi runs it during the morning hours—pharmacies in Egypt are usually open for some 18 hours a day—told Watani that he had been home when he heard the unrest in the street. He called his wife in the pharmacy and, when he learnt that the Copts were under assault, rushed to her rescue. But it was too late; the damage had already been done. Dr Haidi says she was serving two young veiled women when she sensed the riots outside. She quickly closed the pharmacy but, a few minutes later, several men broke into the place. They asked the veiled women to leave then beat Dr Haidi and looted the pharmacy. When she called the police the officer asked her: “What are you wearing?” Stupefied, she answered: “What d’you mean? A dress.” Upon which he said, “Put a scarf on your head and run home.”
Dr Hakim and his wife lament the attack and ask: “Apart from the moral damage and terror we were subjected to, who will compensate us for our losses? And why do we have to pay so heavily for the misconduct of some young man and woman [Romani and the Muslim girl] we know nothing about?”
Hard earned money lost
Wassim Fahim, owner of the Khan Khalili garment shop in Dairut, says he closed his shop as soon as the riots began, and went home. Mr Fahim lives on the upper floor in the same building as the shop. The rioters, however broke into the shop, plundered it, and left it in ruins. They did the same to a mobile phone shop, Andrew Communications, owned by his nephew Ihab Kamil. A devastated Mr Kamil spoke to Watani, lamenting his heavy losses. “All my life work and savings are lost,” he said. “Some hard-earned EGP150,000 have gone into thin air. How am I ever going to regain them?”
A few Muslims, however, stood firmly by their Coptic neighbours. Several took Coptic schoolgirls into their homes during the riots. Dr Hakim’s Muslim neighbour went out and stood at the door of his Coptic friend’s villa, preventing any of the rioters from breaking in.
Last Tuesday Assiut governor Nabil al-Ezabi met with Anba Barsoum, archbishop of Dairut, and the elders of both families. Attending were the local politicians and security officials. All present agreed on the utmost importance of upholding the law, and General Ezabi promised that the governorate will compensate the victims for their losses once these are specified.
On Thursday, however, fliers of unknown origin were circulated in Dairut and in the neighbouring towns of Manfalout and Qoussiya accusing specific Coptic names of being behind a network of rapists who targeted young Muslim women. Despite the sheer absurdity of the claim, the fliers were bound to raise Muslim tempers, so the police heightened security in the region.
In a statement issued last Wednesday the rights group “Egyptians against Religious Discrimination” expressed grave concerns about the Dairut violence. The group denounced the indecent relationship between the married Copt and the Muslim girl and described the circulation of indecent photos for the girl as a mean action which reflected moral degeneration. They condemned the murder of the man’s father and uncle. The statement said no-one should be taken for another man’s crime and attributed this to the rampant poverty and lack of education in many rural areas in Upper Egypt. Finally the statement called for purging laws and legislation of discriminatory items and called for the prompt passage of the unified law for building places of worship.