Egyptian Security Officials
Investigate Attacks On Christians
At Least 20 Christians Killed
in Sectarian Violence
CAIRO, Egypt, 4 January, 2000 (Newsroom) Ė Investigators 
from the state security prosecutorís office in Cairo have begun 
official inquiries in Al Kosheh, where at least 20 Christians were 
killed over the weekend in the worst sectarian violence to hit 
Egypt in two decades.

The Health Ministry sent a team of surgeons on Monday to treat 
the wounded, who numbered more than 44, according to witnesses. 
Security police have put the village of Al Kosheh, about 250 miles 
south of Cairo, and surrounding hamlets under curfew and 
cordoned off the area to outsiders.

According to media reports, the violence that began on New 
Yearís Eve resulted from a financial dispute between a Muslim 
and a Christian shopkeeper in the village. It escalated when the 
Muslim and his brothers attacked the manís shop and those of 
other Christians. Residents said that for three days, religiously 
motivated killing, rioting, and looting tore through the 
predominately Coptic Christian village and spread to the nearby 
hamlets of Dar el-Salam and Awlad Toq Garb. 

Witnesses in Dar el-Salam said protesters who claimed that 
Christians had attacked Muslims damaged and burned scores of 
Christian-owned shops and offices. They said police opened fire to 
disperse the demonstrators, some of whom fired back, and that 
more security forces were called to restore order.

The Coptic Orthodox bishop of the region, Bishop Wissa, reported 
that a village church and 50 houses, shops, and warehouses were 
burned in Awlad Toq Garb. On Tuesday, he conducted funeral 
services for the Christian dead. He maintains that 25 Christians 
have been killed and 10 are missing.

Pope Shenouda, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Coptic Church, as 
of Tuesday had not made a public statement on the violence in Al 
Kosheh. According to his emissary, Bishop Marcos, the church is 
waiting for the government to complete its own investigation of 
the events. State investigators arrived in the village on Monday.

Egyptian officials said 21 people were arrested for looting and 
arson. They also said three people were arrested on Sunday night 
for driving around with a loudspeaker and telling villagers that 
their tap water had been poisoned.

Prime Minister Atef Obeid assembled his key cabinet ministers on 
Tuesday to discuss how to stop further communal violence in the 
Al Kosheh region. According to the state-run Al Ahram daily, the 
ministers were expected to come up with "radical solutions" to 
prevent a repeat of the "distressing events which go against the 
tolerant nature of Egyptian society."

The village of Al Kosheh is no stranger to religious tensions. It 
drew international attention in 1998 when police brutally 
interrogated some 1,000 Christians in a murder investigation of 
two Copts killed in the village during a gambling brawl. Official 
inquiries exonerated the police. In fact, the same top two security 
officers during the first Al Kosheh incident, General Sayed Abu 
Maali and Mahmoud Zakar, have remained in their posts.

Bishop Marcos, whom Pope Shenouda sent with another church 
official to the area on Monday to investigate, believes that the 
local security forces could have prevented the sectarian violence 
from spinning out of control if police had acted quickly and 
decisively when the problems began last Friday.

The head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Hafez 
Abu Saada, agrees. "The security of the Sohag governorate should 
have taken control of the situation after the first clash last Friday," 
he said. "The police ought to have secured the village; instead they 
left it."

Bishop Marcos said that the government should replace those 
responsible for Al Koshehís security as one of the first steps 
toward redressing the situation. He said that villagers have not 
been able to trust the officers because of their past record. With the 
latest rampage of killing and destruction, they will be even less 
inclined to do so.

"Healing is possible between the areaís Christians and Muslims, 
not just starting with the clergy but also among social and political 
leaders and their followers," said Marcos. But "the anger of the 
Christians must first be absorbed."

Some Protestants in the area who asked not to be named assert that 
the Copts may have unwittingly helped stoke the flames of 
communal tensions. They said the international attention provided 
to Al Kosheh and the Orthodox Church over the past two years 
may have made some in the village and in the church hierarchy a 
little "cocky."

They cited an award given recently by the Washington-based 
Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom to Bishop Wissa for 
his human rights and religious freedom efforts. They also pointed 
to the fresh construction of an Orthodox church in Al Kosheh. 
Church building in Egypt requires permission from the countryís 
governors and is not easily obtained.

Joseph Assad of Freedom House, who led a congressional 
delegation to Egypt last month, disagrees, arguing that 
international attention has improved conditions for Coptic 
Christians. "Whatís been reported to us by Protestants and 
Orthodox is that things have gotten better," he said. "People are 
able to repair churches. More permits are being given. President 
Mubarak told the delegation that Christians would no longer have 
to get repair permits. Thatís a big change in a policy."

Members of the delegation sent a letter to President Mubarak on 
Monday asking him to dispatch troops trained in controlling mobs 
and to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, including 
police officers who reportedly escalated the violence by wounding 
three Christian farmers passing by the shop on Friday.

Milad Hanna, a Coptic advocate for religious tolerance, and others 
contend that the role of the police in Al Kosheh is the pivotal issue 
the government must tackle to redress Egyptís communal discord. 
"The government is not doing its homework. Itís satisfied with 
police reports and the work of the security forces," Hanna argued. 
"But itís not addressing the political and social imbalances in the 
country. Itís like putting ointment on cancer when chemotherapy is 
whatís needed."

The government bears much responsibility for the violence last 
weekend, Assad argued, because it failed to adequately investigate 
or discipline police responsible for the arrest, torture and abuse of 
more than 1,000 Christians in Al Kosheh during the murder 
investigation in August and September 1998.

"Local police -- none of whom was held accountable in the brutal 
anti-Christian dragnet in Al Kosheh in 1998 -- must not be 
entrusted with protecting the same besieged community today," 
said Nina Shea, director of Freedom Houseís Center for Religious 
Freedom. "These police are abusive, inept and may themselves 
harbor hatred and intolerance of the Christian minority in the area. 
Moreover, the fact that Egypt has so far denied justice to the 
Christians of Al Kosheh after they were assaulted by police in 
1998 may have signaled to extremist elements in the Muslim 
community that the Christian minority can be attacked and driven 
from their homes with impunity."

Freedom House is deeply concerned that the Egyptian government 
consistently downplays the seriousness of violence against 
Christians in Upper Egypt, Shea said. The government initially 
portrayed the latest wave of violence as an isolated and random 
incident involving far fewer deaths than those reported by local 
human rights defenders and the international media. If the 
Egyptian government fails to take appropriate police action and 
legal means this time, she warned, the situation may spin out of 
control.

Outlying provinces suffer from a lack of economic resources and 
development as well, Hanna said. He believes that sectarian 
tensions would ease if more government funds were pumped into 
depressed areas to raise the standard of living and to make such 
communities economically viable.

Hanna and Abu Saada also raised questions about why the violence 
erupted at the start of the new year and millennium just days 
before Muslims celebrate the end of their holy month of fasting, 
Ramadan, and Egyptís Christians celebrate their Christmas. 
Orthodox Christians observe Christmas on January 7 this year. 
Ramadan ends the next day.

"In the past we have seen increased violence in that part of the 
world toward the end of Ramadan," said Assad of Freedom House.

Abu Saada dismissed Hannaís concern that an upcoming trial in 
February might have had something to do with the unrest. Two 
Christians will be tried in connection with the murder of the 
Christian gamblers that sparked the first Al Kosheh incident in 
1998.

Egypt often comes under fire from exiled Coptic groups who 
allege official persecution of their minority, a charge the 
government denies. It says its mainly Muslim population of nearly 
64 million includes some 6 million Copts. Coptic leaders say their 
community numbers 10 million. Many villages in Upper Egypt or 
the southern part of the country have a high percentage of resident 
Copts. Sectarian violence between private Muslims and Christians, 
at least on the scale of the Al Kosheh clashes, is rare. The U.S. 
Coptic Association and the Egyptian government agree on one 
point: There is no evidence of involvement by Muslim militant 
groups in the latest violence in Al Kosheh.

Islamic militants, for their own part, have included Christians as 
part of their campaign to overthrow the Mubarak government and 
set up a strict Islamic state. In one of the worst previous periods of 
violence, 25 Copts were killed by Islamic militants in Assuit 
province between March 1992 and March 1993. Dozens of their 
stores were burned. In February 1997, Muslim militants killed 10 
Christians in a church in the southern village of Abu Qurqas. That 
attack was seen at the time as the work of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, 
Egyptís largest militant group.

ENDS

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