EGYPT: Copts protest over burning of church

Copts Protest Thousands of Coptic Christians have gathered in central Cairo for several days to protest at the burning down of a Coptic Church in early March.

On 4 March 2011 a large Muslim mob attacked Christian homes and a church building in Souf, a village 35km south of Cairo. This led to protests and violent clashes in Cairo, notably on 8 March, when many deaths and injuries occurred.

The trouble in Souf began with rumours of an affair between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman, both of them married. On 2 March 2011 a village council of Coptic and Muslim leaders agreed that the man should leave the village in order to avoid sectarian violence – his home had already been burnt down. The next day, the woman’s cousin attacked and killed her father because he would not sanction the honour-killing of his daughter. The cousin also died that day, of wounds sustained in the attack.

Local imam Sheik Ahmed Abu Al-Dahab blamed the incident on Christians in the village, and he issued a call on Friday 4 March during afternoon prayers, to “Kill all the Christians”, saying that they had “no right” to live in the village.

The attack started that evening and lasted through most of Saturday. Several homes were damaged and the Church of St Mina and St George was set ablaze – the priest narrowly escaped death. The mob prevented the fire brigade from attending, and the church was badly damaged.

The mob that broke into the church chanted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater]” and looted it, demolishing the walls with sledgehammers and setting a fire that burned until the next morning. Muslim prayers were then held at the site and a collection was taken to build a mosque where the church building had stood. Assistant bishop of Giza the Rev Balamoun Youaqeem said, “They destroyed the church completely. All that was left is a few columns and things like that. As a building, it’s all gone.”

Local Copts fled to adjacent villages, and according to Rev Balamoun Youaqeem any Christian women who remained in Souf were being sexually assaulted. He said that he received phone calls from women begging for help, and that groups of Muslims had set up blockades around Souf, declaring they intended to turn it into an “Islamic village”.

On Sunday 6 March about 2,000 Copts gathered outside the Radio and Television Building in Cairo to protest about the attack and what they see as government refusal to acknowledge and address the persecution of Copts. Protestors also accused the government of not sending enough troops to Souf to control the situation. Holding up crosses and placards, they shouted the name of Jesus and chanted, “We need our church”. Soldiers held the crowd back from the building as several priests took turns to address the crowd. Bishop Anba Theodosius of Giza said that the army had pledged to rebuild the church but would not give a written guarantee of the promise – this enraged the crowd.

On Tuesday 8 March protesters in Cairo again demanded justice for the Souf attack. The protest was attended by a large number of Christians, sympathetic Muslims and the Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf. A violent clash erupted in the slum district of Moqattam, where Coptic refuse recyclers live, leaving it in ruins. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown and thirteen people were killed (seven Christians and six Muslims) and at least 110 were injured. There were further violent attacks the following day.

On Friday 11 March, tens of thousands of Egyptians demonstrated in Cairo, Port Said and Alexandria calling for national unity in the wake of all the sectarian violence.

Meanwhile, the Copts’ sit-in at the television building in central Cairo continued, the Copts demanding the reconstruction of the Souf church burned on 4 March. The sit-in was forcibly dispersed on 14 March by troops who arrived at 4am; fourteen people were hospitalised. The majority of protesters had left the area the previous day, after armed forces engineers and soldiers moved onto the church site with equipment to prepare for reconstruction. (Those Copts who had continued the protest had doubted that their demands would be met, despite a positive meeting between their representatives and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.) Villagers forced from their homes have returned and the arson attack on the church is under investigation. (Compass Direct News, Irish Times, Middle East Concern)