Shadow of violence, displacement looms over Christian holidays in Upper Egypt

Qena-–In the biggest church in Farshout, a town harboring a little less than 60,000 inhabitants in Upper Egypt’s Naga Hamady, a lone worshiper stood among the benches as Father Elisha’ Hilal sang his prayers and two children loitered nearby watching icons of saints; in one instant whispering and giggling and in another placing kisses on a picture of Jesus Christ.

It was Tuesday, the night before Coptic Christmas Eve in a town where 15,000 Coptic Christians live and work – but it was eerily quiet in and around the Malak church. One fully veiled female worshiper was seen during the first hour of the prayer, while the other few people present were church workers.

An onlooker explained that Christians were scared by talk of violence against them and so preferred the safety of their own homes over the church.

Dr. Latif el-Maasarani, a Coptic Christian and a church-goer whose property and family endured an assault by Muslim youth in the same town, explained to Al-Masry Al-Youm later that rumors had it that churches have been receiving threats from Muslim extremists.

Five weeks earlier, on the evening of 21 November, the area around the church, where most Christians in Farshout are based, was the scene of much violence as Muslim gangs started breaking into and looting shops and pharmacies owned by Christians, then torching them after taking what they wanted. They went from store to store with batons in hand and, according to some reports, fire arms, wreaking havoc.

The violence came after 21-year-old Girgis Barouny Girgis, a Copt, was charged with assaulting and raping a 12-year-old Muslim girl. Girgis, a resident of Kom el-Ahmar, is currently in police custody pending trial. The incident, however, has spurred continuous protests in addition to the violence – the worst of which happened in Farshout, the hometown of the girl which lies a few kilometers away from Kom el-Ahmar.

“The day of the clashes? We now call it Black Saturday,” said Father Elisha’ shortly before Tuesday’s prayer, and then with a smile he added, “a black darker than this dress,” pointing to his black priest robes. “This day will be marked down in the history of this town.”

Not only businesses were hurt, according to eye witnesses, but also people were reportedly attacked in their homes or had their windows and balconies pelted with stones. Police forces rounded-up at least 75 on the day of the violence, and sent them to Qena, but most were only detained between 15 and 21 days.

Roman Labbas, a teacher in a local trade school, believed that the situation was used to “weaken the Copts economically in Farshout because they own many of the businesses and shops. The whole purpose of this, it was all done for theft and robbery. Because economy in this town is based on trades and we’re a big percentage of the traders here.”

Mikhail Youssef Abdel Salam, a trader whose shop was destroyed, said he lost goods worth of LE70,000. “The two clothes shops next to mine were burned down completely. Every piece of (merchandise) was taken. We reported the loss to the local authorities but nothing so far has happened. I’ve been closed down for two months now. And our money is running out.”

Father Elisha said there were more than 65 stores that suffered damages, and some Copts left the town out of fear for their lives.

Basouj Gerges Demian, now a church servant, is one of those. He told Al-Masry Al-Youm that he, his wife and children had not gone home since November. He described the “horrors” his family has seen during the night, saying that it began when Muslim gangs "broke into my house with guns in hand. They started shooting in the air, and burning things. It was an army of men,” the man said.

Demian is neither a relative nor a friend of Girgis, the alleged rapist.

Demian said the attack on his home happened in broad daylight, and that he and the male members of his family had to fiercely fight back in order to protect the daughters. “They wanted to kidnap the girls. It was in broad daylight. No police, none at all came to our aid. My wife and my sister in law were fending off the gangs along with us.”

They mainly rebuffed the attack by throwing “stones and glass at them. My [22-year-old] son Latif was there too, defending us, in addition to my [26-year-old] nephew Karim.”

However in the end, the riot police showed up, said Demian, but they also apprehended members of his family, “we don’t know why they took them. They are still detained; my nephew in Wadi el-Natroun and my son in Borg el-Arab.”

Members of the Muslim gang were also arrested, but according to both Demian and Father Elisha’, they were quickly released. “We knew them by name, but because they knew powerful people [in the local government] they were immediately freed,” said Demian. “But I haven’t seen my son and nephew for 40 days. If they hadn’t defended themselves, our daughters would have been taken. Nepotism is what sent my son and nephew to jail. Nepotism!”

Demian, clearly shaken by the incident said that he was still afraid. Since the incident, he had refused to send his little girls to school. “And my wife is staying with her sister and I sleep here in the church. What have we done to deserve all this? They could have killed my daughters. But we have no worth here.”

After a moment of silence, Father Elisha’ said that Christians feel insecure everywhere now and they expect violence at any moment.

“It’s youth gangs who are responsible for this, reacting to this repeated story of a Christian guy, Muslim girl. They rise against all Christians. What is our fault here in Farshout? The [alleged rapist] comes from el-Kom el-Ahmar. What’s our mistake?” he said.

The incident is the last of violent attacks against Coptic Christians, who according to rough figures constitute around 8 to 10 percent of the Egyptian population, many of them living in upper-Egypt, and who are members of the one of the oldest churches in the world.

“The situation begs the question: Will this be the last incident of violence [against Copts]? It’s not the first and it certainly won’t be the last in Egypt,” said Father Elisha’. “All what we ask for, and we call on everyone police, governor, president, prime minister, everyone, to give us security. We want Egypt to be secure. We’ve been living here for centuries under the claim that there’s peace and security. But where is it now under this government?”

The priest said that following the incident, the heads of Muslim families – in addition to local council members — paid visits to the church for reconciliation purposes, at the height of the “catastrophe. The mayor had also sent his people.” But none had promised anything but a “reconciliation meeting” which many Christians had refused to take part of until they received full compensation for their losses.

Father Elisha’ said that after the first incident, rumors started spreading about Christians planning vengeful acts, including burning a mosque, and security officials talked to the priest about it.

“But if we’d wanted to steal and loot and meet them eye for an eye, we would have after the first attacks. But we didn’t make one move,” he said. “We’re aware that people are criticizing our stance as passive, but, in accordance to our religious beliefs, we let God defend us and we just stay silent. Our God is alive.”

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