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|Coptic Christians Arrested, Shops Looted in Egyptian Village|
|By Michael Larson
Authorities in an Egyptian village arrested 50 Coptic Christians, whose shops were then looted, to pacify Muslims following violence that erupted on Nov. 4 over a Christian boy’s unwitting break with custom.
Muslim villagers attacked the homes and shops of Coptic Christians in violence-prone Tayyiba, a town with 35,000 Christians and 10,000 Muslims, after 14-year-old Copt Mina William failed to dismount his donkey as a funeral procession passed.
William was watching the procession in Tayibba, 220 kilometers (137 miles) south of Cairo, with Nathan Yaccoub, also 14. William’s failure to dismount violated a local custom of showing respect, Copts United reported, and members of the procession reportedly beat him before completing the procession. William suffered minor injuries.
After the funeral procession, the processional members began throwing stones at the homes of local Copts and attacking their shops before police broke up the crowd with tear gas.
A priest said members of the procession did not attack the youths for showing disrespect but as an excuse to lash out against the community’s Christians for a previous episode of sectarian violence.
“These two children with the donkey didn’t know about the traditions,” said Father Metias Nasr, a Cairo-based priest with connections in areas south of the capital. “The Muslims there were angry about the last case of violence and wanted to create a new problem with these two children there.”
When the violence began, police presence increased significantly in the city. But rather than quell the unrest, police reportedly made matters worse for the Christians. After breaking up the crowd, officers detained 50 Copts and 10 Muslims.
A source told Compass that police arrested a disproportionate amount of Christians to create a false sense of equanimity and to pressure the Christians into “reconciliation” with the attackers so the Copts would not prosecute them. The arrested Christians have since been released.
In the two weeks since the attacks and looting, the increased police force in the village has harassed Copts through intimidation, “fines” and racketeering. Police have taken an estimated $50,000 from village Copts, the source said.
Once police lifted the curfew, Coptic shopkeepers returned to their stores to discover that they had been looted. Sources said the perpetrators were “supply inspectors,” local government inspectors who do quality control checks on goods. They gained access by smashing locks and doors of the shops.
The sources said supply inspectors plundered grocery stores, a poultry shop, an electronics store and a pharmacy.
According to Coptic weekly Watani, looters stole nearly $2,000 worth of goods from grocer Bishara Gayed. Another victim of the looting, an owner of a poultry shop who declined to give his name, blamed supply inspectors for running off with his stock.
A local clergyman condemned the violence.
“It is unreasonable that a mistake by some 14-year-old should lead to all that rampage,” a village Coptic priest known as Father Augustinus told weekly newspaper Watani. “Something ought to be done to halt all this.”
Numerous instances of sectarian violence have struck Tayyiba in the last few months.
Last month a Coptic Christian was killed over a dispute with a Muslim who wanted to buy his house. Violence escalated, resulting in damaged storefronts, 48 arrests and injuries sustained by three Christians and a Muslim.
Such quarrels typically arise from land ownership issues. A Coptic source told Compass that Christians in Tayyiba are generally wealthier than their Muslim counterparts, often leading to resentment.
Tayyiba was stable at press time, though the town is considered to be continually in danger of religious violence flaring. This situation is common throughout Egypt, Fr. Nasr told Compass.
“The village is like anywhere in Egypt,” he said. “In every place in Egypt we can say that in one minute everyone can be destroyed by fanatics, sometimes through the encouragement of security [forces].”
The Coptic Church has faced recent difficulties in other Egyptian cities, with government officials attempting to obstruct their religious activities. On Wednesday (Nov. 19), city officials in Lumbroso, Alexandria destroyed an unfinished but recently furnished Coptic orphanage owned by Abu-Seifein Church and worth 6 million Egyptian pounds (US$1 million).
Officials claimed the building did not have a license, although church leaders said the demolition came on orders from the religiously zealous Islamic mayor. Ali Labib, former head of police and state security in Alexandria, in his two-year tenure as mayor has refused license applications for new church construction or rebuilding, said a Cairo-based Coptic priest who requested anonymity.
The priest said the orphanage was only able to obtain a license because it was issued before Labib’s tenure.
Islam is a growing presence in Egypt’s public sphere. While the government has attempted to crack down on extremists, Islamic civil groups that have drawn widespread support by offering cheap medical assistance and private lessons to school children include the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization with jihad in its credo that has been accused of violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood is well regarded by the average Egyptian, who equates the government with autocracy, corruption and repression, author and intellectual Tarek Heggy reportedly said. Over the last four decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has introduced its brand of fundamentalist Islam into Egyptian schools, mosques and media, he added.
Egypt’s ethnic Christians, known as Copts, belong to the Orthodox Church and number 12 million among the country’s 79 million inhabitants. There are smaller groups of Catholics and Protestants.
Source: Compass Direct News, P.O. Box 27250, Santa Ana, CA 92799-7250/USA. A partner agency of APD Switzerland.