Friday, January 8, 2010
Gunned down Christmas in Egypt
Qena -- Less than 24 hours earlier the Church of Mar Yohanna was full of prayers and singing, much color and signs of festivities, despite an air of caution, on Coptic Christmas Eve, but the next morning, on Thursday, the scene was different, as over a thousand Egyptian men and women, crammed and standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside the church, sobbed and wailed bidding their last goodbye to six young church deacons who were violently killed the night before.
The deacons were killed in a drive-by shooting in which two cars, according to eyewitnesses (and in official reports three cars) opened fire on the young men as they came out of the church in the Upper Egyptian town of Naga Hammadi in southern Qena (600km south of Cairo). A Muslim church guard was also killed in the same incident, and 10 deacons were gravely wounded. "The deacons, who are now in Sohag University Hospital, are in a critical but stable condition. They were transferred there this morning because Sohag's hospital is better equipped," Mohamed Refaat Hussein, general manager of Naga Hammadi Hospital said on Thursday evening. "Most of them suffer from bullet injuries in the chest and stomach."
Hussein did not confirm "rumors" saying that two of the wounded deacons had already died from sustained injuries.
No Coptic families were hurt after the mass as it ended at least an hour earlier before the attack; only the priests and deacons lingered until 11:00 p.m. “At 11:15 p.m., a group of deacons and I were leaving the church when we saw a Fiat and a Peugeot with three men carrying guns who started shooting at us,” Bishop Kirollos of the Naga Hammadi Diocese told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “The deacons pushed me back at the church while six of them were gunned downed with a Muslim security guard,” he added.
Egyptian press on Thursday night circulated reports by the interior ministry saying that based on witnesses' reports, officials have identified and caught the lead attacker -- who according to them is "a wanted criminal."
The attack is believed to be in retaliation for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man in November in the town of Farshout, six kilometers off Naga Hammadi, a story that the interior ministry supported. However, Bishop Kirollos, a powerful figure among the Copts there and who is also at loggerheads with the Naga Hammadi's governor according to locals, said that the attackers were “targeting him.”
The attacks were expected. Then again, Bishop Kirollos received text messages that read: "It's your turn" and several Coptic Christians have told Al-Masry Al-Youm a day before the attack that they have been receiving verbal threats from Muslims, and hearing that extremists "have a Christmas present in store for them."
"A Muslim passed me on the street and shouted 'We will show you'," said a 16-year-old Christian girl. Unveiled as she is, she stands out as a non-Muslim in a town where almost all Muslim women are distinguishable by their head-scarves.
A Christian grandmother in Farshout, Dawlat el-Aqab, had told Al-Masry Al-Youm earlier that she will watch Pope Shenouda perform the holiday sermons on TV, but won't leave the house. Five weeks earlier, her balcony was pelted with stones by angry Muslim gangs who, she said, came up banging her door which she refused to open. "All what we could do was scream for help. I only returned home three days ago," she said on Tuesday night. "I don't feel safe here ever since the day of the riots. I was so afraid that when my son came to pick me up on the day of the riots, I went down in my night gown and forgot to cover my hair. So of course I won't go the mass."
Bishop Kirollos had told Al-Masry Al-Youm minutes before the Christmas mass that he had been receiving reports that something might happen on Christmas eve. He added: "We're not afraid. We're going to pray. But we will finish early."
During the mass itself, a woman who refused to be named "because of the sensitive situation that we're in" said that she was afraid to come to the mass, but decided to do so nevertheless. "I don't know what may happen." When asked about the police cars standing outside the back gate of the church, which was the only gate that was opened for security reasons, she said that it made her feel safe.
However, the two lone police cars, carrying around five officers each, had left the scene approximately one hour after the start of the mass, which began at 6:00 p.m. on the fateful night. A police captain and three officers remained, as the streets around the church remained cordoned off to cars and only pedestrians were allowed.
Still, the attacks seemed to shake the Christian community in Naga Hammadi, and perhaps everywhere else around Egypt. Before the funeral of the slain deacons, Christian youth went on a rampage in the streets around the church breaking car windows, snapping lampposts, torching cars and burning banners carrying holiday greetings made by Muslim parliament and local government members. The rioters, however, were dispersed by the deluge of police and security forces, who were mustered to the scene in hundreds in dozens of large trucks and military-style armoured vehicles, and who used rubber bullets and sprayed the protesters with tear gas, which could be still smelled hours after the incident. The streets were riddled with shattered glass and burned cinder.
The youth chanted against the governor calling him a "scumbag" and declaring that "the blood of Copts is not cheap." One protester cried out, "This happens because the government is theirs [the Muslims'] and it protects those sons of dogs." Another shouted pointing at the funeral vehicles, "Is this [Islam] the religion of tolerance?" --citing a statement that Muslims often say in describing their religion-- "This is the religion of terror." A protester told Al-Masry Al-Youm reporter that this is the work "of Muslim sheikhs who call us infidels."
Another, who claimed to have been an eyewitness of the shootings, said that the bodies of the deacons for left for hours on the ground. "I saw one of them, lying there, shot in the head. But the security wouldn't touch him." Effat Estefan, who spent the night at the Naga Hammadi General Hospital where the dead deacons were taken, showed passersby cell phone pictures he had taken of the bodies at the morgue. "Look at this. Look how young," he told people. Blood could be seen staining the front of his shirt.
"The government is responsible for this; they discriminate between Muslims and Christians," said Amir William Ghattas, who was present at the funeral. "We don't want to surrender. Our leaders are wrong. This is not the time or age of 'turning the other cheek'. We want our rights back!"
After the funeral prayers, and as people and priests huddled around the six coffins adorned with crosses, Bishop Kirollos gave a speech in an attempt to assuage the pain of his people and calm the youth down. "These [deacons] took part in the Christmas celebrations then ascended to the heavens, and this is my only solace ... I pray to God to lift his anger off us. Our hearts are broken and our souls are weak. But God sends condolences." He added: "I urge you not to leave the church with them after prayers, women especially should stay put. What you did this morning [the rioting] is wrong and shameful, and I warned against it. I can walk with you outside but violence is not our way."
However, in a dramatic moment, some of the younger Copts started arguing back with the bishop --a much respected figure among young and old in Naga Hammadi-- from amid the crowds. "We're tired. We can't take this anymore," one man cried out. Many shouted in agreement saying they wanted to fight back.
The bishop began shouting back, then when this failed to calm the crowds, he started pleading with them, to which they seemed to respond. "I'm afraid for you. Don't go outside. I can't lose any more people. Do it for God. My heart is torn ... The Earth is not for us; those who want the Kingdom of heaven should be calm, should think. Please, for God." he said; only the sound of weeping of both men and women could be heard at this point as Bishop Kirollos started quoting the Bible.
All through the funeral, reports were circulating that Muslims were attacking Christians in neighborhoods nearby but none of these reports could be confirmed on the spot, but they did seem to spread much fear among the crowds.
Outside of the church and following the prayers, Bishop Kirollos went around urging drivers carrying the deacons to their resting place not to engage with anyone who attacks. Inside the church itself, Father Beymen, another Naga Hammadi priest, could be seen crying on the phone: "Why should we suffer as such for the crime of this rapist, who's not even convicted yet? Why should our property be destroyed, and our kids killed like this in front of our eyes? ... This is terrorism. However you try to spin this, it's still terrorism."
Despite attempts by church officials to calm youth, friction between Muslims and Christians, in addition to minor clashes, occurred across town. There was a brief calm in the afternoon and early evening, as police trucks and armoured vehicles patrolled Naga Hammadi which by that time resembled a ghost town with only police forces and armed night guards in sight. Any pedestrians were stopped, questioned and sent home and most shops were closed down. The calm was momentarily broken when late at night, according to a Naga Hammadi resident called Milad, some Christians attempted to hold another protest downtown -- "but it was quickly contained by the [police] forces."
Christians, mostly Coptic, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's 83-million predominantly Muslim population.