Egypt's Endangered Christians
After Violent Attacks, Ancient Coptic Minority Fears It Has Become the Target of Islamic Militants
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 18 1997; Page A12
The Washington Post
EZBET DAWOUD, Egypt -- The most striking memory of the surviving villagers,
describe the horror of what happened here, is how peaceful everything had seemed.
It was just after dusk. Jadala Mansour, 46, worked behind the counter
of his tiny tailor's shop while
an assistant hunched over a sewing machine. A few steps away, Fadel Hanafi chatted with four
friends in front of his small grocery shop, the one with the banana tree out front.
It didn't seem to matter then that Hanafi, a father of 11, was Muslim
and the four other men were
Coptic Christians. Now it seems to matter a great deal.
In a bloody spasm of violence and terror, gunmen believed to be Islamic
militants, wielding assault
rifles and wearing masks and military fatigues, walked into this predominantly Christian hamlet 300
miles south of Cairo around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday and shot everyone in sight. The four-minute
assault killed 13 men -- nine of them Copts -- including Mansour and his assistant as well as Hanafi
and his four Coptic friends.
The attack was the second of its kind in a month and one of the bloodiest
against Egypt's Christian
minority since 1991, when Islamic militants launched a violent campaign against the secular,
military-backed government of President Hosni Mubarak. On Feb. 12, gunmen killed nine Christians
while they attended a youth meeting at a Coptic church in Abu Qurqas, 160 miles to the north.
Although Egyptian security forces have clearly gained the upper hand
in their battle against Islamic
extremists during the last several years, the spate of recent attacks has reminded Egyptians of the
militants' continued capacity for mayhem. In particular, they have reinforced a sense of vulnerability
among Christians -- who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's 60 million people -- in a
predominantly Islamic country where some Muslim militants regard them as heretics and even the
government seems to consider them second-class citizens.
"Clearly there have been enough incidents and they've been dramatic
and bloody enough that it
probably goes beyond random acts of violence," said Virginia Sherry, associate director of Human
Rights Watch/Middle East in New York. "The question is whether orders are being given at some
level within the militant hierarchy to carry this out."
Although Egyptian police say both attacks were the work of the Islamic
Group, Egypt's main militant
Islamic organization, they have yet to produce evidence for that claim. After the church massacre, an
Islamic Group spokesman denied responsibility for the attack, but was then contradicted by another
spokesman. Some analysts said this suggests the organization has splintered.
In a statement sent to international news agencies Saturday, the Islamic
Group denied the attack in
Ezbet Dawoud, accusing Egyptian security forces of organizing the slaughter to discredit the militants.
Egyptian police have named three Islamic Group members as suspects in the killings.
Since 1991, more than 1,000 people on all sides have died in political
violence in Egypt, a key U.S.
ally and partner in the Middle East peace process. But the militants are now on the defensive.
Government security forces have killed or driven abroad many of their top leaders and jailed
thousands of rank-and-file sympathizers.
As a result, militants who once staged high-profile attacks on government
officials and tourists in
Cairo and other major cities are now largely confined to hit-and-run operations against police in the
sugar-cane fields and mud-brick villages of Upper Egypt. Overall, the level of violence has dropped
from a peak of 415 deaths in 1995 to 187 last year, according to the Ibn Khaldoun Center, a Cairo
"Why are they giving this priority to attacking Copts?" asked Hana Mustafa,
an expert on extremist
violence at the government-backed al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "I think it was a long time
since they had a high-profile attack and maybe the Copts represent an easier target than assassinating
Egypt is the home of the Coptic faith -- known here as the Church of
St. Mark -- and has been since
before the advent of Islam. While most of Egypt's Copts adhere to the Orthodox faith, some are
affiliated with the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
But despite their long history in Egypt, Coptic Christians, who often
have a small blue crucifix
tattooed on the inside of one wrist, have long occupied an ambiguous place in a country where Islam
has become the official religion.
Copts are grossly underrepresented in the upper reaches of government
and the army, for example,
and are still subject to 19th-century Ottoman law that sharply restricts their ability to build or repair a
church. Religion is noted on government identity cards. In the past, human rights organizations have
complained that official discrimination against Copts "fuels intolerance and -- intentionally or not --
sets the stage for anti-Christian violence by Islamic militants," according to a 1994 report by Human
Rights Watch/Middle East.
Mubarak's government recently has moved to redress some of these grievances
by, among other
things, ordering Muslim preachers to refrain from describing Copts in their sermons as infidels,
according to human rights monitors. Police guards have been posted outside Coptic churches.
But the Copts remain especially vulnerable to militant violence, in
part because they are often
suspected of collaborating with police and also because of their relative prosperity. Militants have
been known to rob jewelry stores owned by Copts as a means of financing their operations.
Copts are a majority in Ezbet Dawoud, a hamlet of one- and two-story
mud-brick homes bisected
by a putrid drainage ditch. The hamlet is attached to the larger village of Baghora, where the skyline is
dominated by the handsome brick spires of the church -- one of four in Baghora -- of Mary Girgas
The attackers approached from the direction of the church, villagers
said, firing at everyone they
encountered. "Every night they sit out here," said Saleh Fadel, 17, describing how his father and his
four Coptic friends were slain in front of the family grocery store. "Three people came and they
started shooting at them. When I heard the shooting, I hid in the shop."
He emerged to find his father sprawled on his back next to the drainage
ditch, fatally wounded by
gunshots to the chest.
After the rampage, the gunmen fled into dense sugar-cane fields. An
hour later, attackers presumed
to be the same men fired on a train heading north to Cairo, killing a 40-year-old woman and
wounding six men.
Whatever sectarian tensions lurk beneath the surface here, Muslims and
Christians have been coping
with their grief together. They scattered lentils on bloodstained earth to ward off evil spirits and, on
Saturday, mingled at memorial services for the dead.
"Here there is no difference between us," said Halim Weesa, 70, a prosperous
paying his condolences to Muslim friends at a mourning tent in Ezbet Dawoud. "We are all one
Together in Egypt
Friday, April 11 1997; Page A26
The Washington Post
John Lancaster's news story dated March 18 accurately describes the
bonds and shared feelings between Muslims and Christians in the face of the threat of
terrorism, as summed up by the quotation of the Christian landowner paying his
condolences to his Muslim friends: "We are all one family."
He also highlights how terrorists do not discriminate in their targets,
and Christian alike. Moreover, he illustrates how the level of violence has dropped
tremendously in recent years, as Egyptian security forces, supported by the people,
have gained the upper hand.
All these facts clearly contradict the headline on the article, "Egypt's
Christians," which is misleading and raises false and baseless alarms about the fate of
Copts in Egypt at a time when the situation on the ground is not only improving
dramatically but also where the government, as Mr. Lancaster details, is addressing
any grievances of the people, including our Coptic brothers.
Furthermore, to claim that the government seems to consider Copts second-class
citizens is groundless and provocative. Christians in Egypt have always enjoyed equal
rights and privileges along with their Muslim brethren and have occupied key posts in
parliament, the government and many international organizations.
Terrorism and extremism of different sorts have posed many challenges
world in recent years. In Egypt, Muslims and Christians -- unified under the
leadership of President Hosni Mubarak -- have been able to confront this challenge
successfully and have united to achieve impressive economic progress, particularly in
the last two years, along with the hopeful, continuous progress in the peace process.
AHMED MAHER EL SAYED
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
We are no longer "Together in Egypt"
Dear Mr. Ambassador,
In, your letter to the Washington Post dated April 11 1997, you describes Mr. Lancaster's article "Egypt's Endangered Christians" as "misleading and raises false and baseless alarms about the fate of
Copts in Egypt." As an Egyptian Christian who grow up in Egypt and very familiar with the current situation that Christians are faced with in Egypt under your government, I must say that your letter to the post is the misleading one. In your letter you claim that Christians have enjoyed equal rights in Egypt. Now, do you consider the following facts as part of the equal rights you are claiming?
- There has not been a single Christians appointed to the judicial system since 1986.
- Christians are not allowed to build or even repair their own churches without a presidential decree (only 20 giving a year)..
- The governing party (President Mubarak's party and yours as well) has not nominated any Christians on its ticket in the past parliaments election. Therefor, after faking the election, Christians were left with no representatives in their own parliament (15% of Egyptians are Christians).
- Christians students are not allowed to join the police academy or any military school.
- Christians have no time allocated in public TV or Radio broadcasting to air their religious services, while Muslims clerics have almost half of the TV and Radio time to publicly insult Christians and call them infidels.
- Christians are asked to provide their religion on their ID cards and all job applications.
Mr. Ambassador, the list goes on. It is clear to the international community that Christians have no Human Rights in Egypt. I would have liked to see you admitting that there are problems with the system and that your government is taking serious steps to correct these problems, rather than trying to mislead the American public. I must tell you though, the truth is out and your false claims will no longer count. The international community realizes that we are "Egypt's Endangered Christians" and they are taking the necessary steps to label Egypt as a raciest Country and sanctions are on the way (Look at the recommended sanctions from the Council of the City of New York).
Mr. Ambassador, your government is as bad as South Africa used to be and I promise you that all Egyptian Christians around the world are doing their best to expose your government. WE are no longer "Together in Egypt", it is only YOU now!
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