A Special Report by ICC
03/20/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Violence against Christians in Egypt intensified following rumors about a Muslim woman’s alleged conversion to Christianity, drawing attention to the fragile state of governance and sectarian relationships in the country.
In the city of Kom Ombo, a rumor began to spread that a divorced Muslim woman in her mid-30s was kidnapped by the Coptic Church and converted to Christianity. Within a few hours, hundreds of angry Muslims gathered outside the city’s largest and most central church, Mar Girgis.
Violence quickly ensued, as the mob tried to storm the church, believing that the woman was inside. Day after day, hundreds of young boys and men, mostly in their teens, surrounded the church, pelting it with rocks and Molotov cocktails, injuring Christians and damaging property. Six police men and a dozen Christians were wounded in the clashes.
The rumors were fueled by the prevailing anti-Christian hostility and inspired sporadic acts of violence around the region. A 17-year old Coptic Christian, Abanob, was confronted by two youths and asked whether he was a Christian. When he confessed his faith without hesitation, he was followed for a while and viciously attacked with a pocket knife. Abanob said: “He aimed for my face but cut my arm instead, which I quickly raised to cover my face in an attempt to protect myself.”
Who Were the Rioters?
When Ahram Online, a media outlet, went to see the woman’s family, they were blocked off by a mob similar to the one attacking the church. Tens of young men, also mostly in their teens, carrying sticks and pocket knives quickly surrounded the mandara, a place for social events, where the media personnel were to meet the woman’s family.
When the woman’s brother met Ahram Online, he said: “We don’t have anything to say other than what we told investigations. She went missing and we know nothing of her. None of us (family members) is at the church [amongst those attacking it]...We never claimed the church had her. We don’t know where she is. We know nothing about her.”
Mystery surrounds the sources of the rumor and the identity of the mob. There was rife speculation about the woman, ranging from her being kidnapped by the church and forcibly converted, to her eloping with a Christian lover. Speaking about the mob at the mandara, a driver told Ahram Online, “We don’t know these people. Here (in the area) we all know each other, but we don’t know who these people (the rioters) are.”
It wasn’t until the second week of March that the violence was brought to calm when the woman returned to her family. According to Ahram Online, she was being coerced by an alleged Christian from Cairo, who supposedly asked her for money in exchange for helping her meet a priest who had been expelled from the Church and who alone could tell her about Christianity. The woman had reportedly shown interest in Christianity, but after she returned home she said she chose not to believe in the Christian doctrine.
A Muslim Sheikh addressed a crowd of men at Kom Ombo to dispel rumors and restore order. In a meeting between Christian and Muslim leaders, he said he was assured that the Church does not encourage such acts and that the priest was expelled from the Church.
But after the dust has settled on the violence, questions still linger about the power of a rumor to incite such needless violence against innocent Christians. As ICC’s Middle East Regional Manager Aidan Clay said: “Anti-Christian violence in Egypt is often triggered by rumors of conversion or alleged affairs between Christian men and Muslim women, which 90 percent of the time proves to be false.”
The Root Problem
Despite the efforts of influential Muslim figures and Imams in mosques to calm the people down, the angry mob carried on with violence without any evidence to substantiate the rumors. Even the family and church leaders had denied the rumors, but the mob refused to listen. It speaks volumes of the growing anti-Christian sentiment in the country and the inability of the government to calm its people down and take effective control in a time of crisis, much less address the root problem of increased persecution of the Christian minority.
Ever since the shift in power from virtual dictatorship to Islamic fundamentalism, Christian persecution has increased with the beatings of monks, kidnapping of Christian girls, forced conversions to Islam, destruction of property, bogus charges of blasphemy, arrest of converts from Islam and a growing atmosphere of intimidation and fear for Christians. If this anti-Christian hostility remains unaddressed by the government, things will only get worse.
Even more troubling is the fact that the mob is unlikely to face any legal consequences, something that will only perpetuate further violence. “Unless the Egyptian government protects the religious freedoms of all Egyptians, including one’s right to choose their own faith, similar occurrences will continue to happen,” Clay said. “In addition, officials must investigate the attack in Kom Ombo and arrest those responsible, or else extremists will further be emboldened to commit ever-more violent acts against religious minorities.”
Though the storm has been brought to a calm, it is obvious that only a symptom has been treated, while the sinister disease of anti-Christian hostility continues to infect the nation, not only being ignored but also perpetuated by the government. Until this disease is treated, Christians will continue to be victimized by angry mobs for every alleged crime and any foolish rumor, without anyone being able to exercise any effective control on the fallout.