Fundamentalists demand Mafia-style
protection money from Copts
Richard Engel Abu Qurqas Middle East Times (Egypt)
Samir is planning to escape with his family from a small village
near Abu Qurqas to Cairo. He fears for his life and has been told
that if he refuses to pay gizia ("requital") money that
Muslim villagers demand for the 'protection' of his family, he
will be killed.
"They take whenever they need," says Samir who was afraid to give his full name. "When they need weapons they take from the Christians. I'm scared I will be killed. Even if I was killed, no one would say anything. Even a witness to my murder wouldn't say anything."
Samir complains that gizia is increasing in a number of small villages in Upper Egypt, making it impossible to remain in the region.
"Everyone pays, but what can we do? There are so many people who deny it. They are lying! Everyone pays! I have no outlet!" says Samir, apologizing for his excitement.
Amgad, also from a village near Abu Qurqas, has been living in hiding in a poor district of Cairo for over a year. In 1996 he received three letters demanding gizia from the Gamma Islamiya, Egypt's largest Muslim militant group. The third letter, obtained by the Middle East Times, said, "We demand 10,000 pounds from you tomorrow. We will not accept one piaster less and if you bring the money one day late it will be 15,000 pounds. If you can't bring it in these days we will not accept even millions of pounds from you and you know the punishment for that. This is a final decision." The handwritten letter was signed "Gamma Islamiya".
Bishop Thomas, responsible for about 100,000 Copts in the bishopric of Quiseyya, explained that gizia has become "status quo" in some villages. The bishop, who has kept track of over a hundred villagers forced to pay protection money, explained that Christians in his bishopric are forced to give gizia from
terrorists groups as well as from local Muslim bosses.
"Most of the itawwa [contributions] come from a well-known person. He sends a message [saying] to send an amount of money. They don't need secret letters. He will pass by [a Christian's store or home] and say, 'you send me 1,000 pounds.'"
The bishop explained that this type of extortion is "very common," and that nearly all Christians pay gizia to Muslims in five villages in Quiseyya.
"Of course in the other bishoprics they have [gizia]. Of course, it is the same situation. In Minya and Abu Qurqas they have this. They are mafia bosses. It's very well known that only the Christians are paying," he added.
"The phenomena is much more important and serious than
the fanatics killing people in churches. This is the true
fundamentalism," said Milad Hanna,
a prominent Egyptian Coptic intellectual. The wicked and filthy
incidents of itawwa or gizia mean that there is no government in
Egypt. It means that
we are living in a fundamentalist state like Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Hanna explained that he believes this phenomena is a serious problem because it will cause a demographic shift in Egypt and is damaging to national unity.
"I accuse the National Democratic Party right away because for the last 20 years they have excluded the Copts from political life."
The bishop explained that gizia is demanded anytime there is an exchange of money or when business is done. He explained that whenever Copts return from abroad, buy or sell goods or property, or harvest their land, a Muslim boss appears to collect his share.
Samir, who sells honey, explained that there is no escape from the protection payments. He said he recently went to the Delta to trade so that people would not know that he was doing business. Samir explained, however, that the local Muslim boss followed him to northern Egypt.
"It's a system that has destroyed development," said Bishop Thomas, "It is a mafia." "They even take from the people who don't have anything," said
Samir. Christians even go and borrow money to pay. "Everyone knows, the police know and do nothing. I am very sad because a lot of people are leaving because the situation is not sound," said Samir
A pastor in Cairo, who asked not to be named, explained that the Islamists use the Quran to justify taking money from Christians. He pointed to Chapter 9, verse 29 of the Quran which states, "Fight against those from among the people who do not believe in Allah nor the last day... until they pay the
tribute out of hand, utterly subdued."
The pastor, who frequently visits the Minya governorate, said gizia was not common until recently. "Gizia arose since the draining of the militant's income, since the security forces began cracking down on them. First they looted jewelry stores, now they make some people pay."
"The problem is that the Islamists are trying to use Christians as war prisoners," said Raafat Said, a Muslim and member of parliament representing the leftist Tagammu party.
"The more the government tries to crack down, the more they punish the Copts. The more the security forces cut off sources of finance from abroad, the more they take from the Copts."
Said explained that the Copts are afraid of informing the police because they do not believe that the police are interested in helping them. "A lot of Copts are afraid of informing the police and I doubt that the officer is interested in stopping them because his inner feeling is to let the Copts pay," explained Said.
"We only know the people killed, we never know the people who are paying because if they tell they are dead. A doctor was recently killed because he refused to pay, we didn't know that he had been paying," said Dr. Talat Hamad from Abu Qurqas. "In my imagination the problem is the atmosphere. It is a black atmosphere and we need to mobilize forces to stop it," Said.
Bishop Thomas explained that the violence serves to terrorize the Coptic community into silence. He explained that in October 1994 two brothers who owned a grocery store had been paying gizia, but refused to pay 50,000 pounds. Days later, militants broke into the brother's home and assassinated them in front of their families.
"This is hell, but I don't pay," said a Copt in Quiseyya, adding that he would love to leave the region but cannot afford it.
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