On January 16, 2011, an Egyptian court issued a death sentence to one of the three murderers involved in the Naga Hammadi killings. However, the two other accomplices in the shooting that killed six young Coptic men and a Muslim security guard were acquitted of all charges just a month later. The ruling was not uncommon. In February 2010, four Muslim men were acquitted after killing a Coptic Christian in the Upper Egypt village of Dairout. Egypt has long been governed by emergency laws which have tried perpetrators of attacks on Christians in military, not civilian, courts. The perpetrators are often given a mere slap on the wrist before being acquitted. Moreover, court officials and police often take the side of Muslims and occasionally base their decision on Islamic Law (Sharia), which favors Muslims and is the foundation of the Egyptian legal code according to Article 2 of Egypt’s Constitution.
A report released by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on February 22 provides more insight:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is concerned with the acquittals of two of the three men charged with killing six Coptic Orthodox Christians and one Muslim security guard in the town of Naga Hammadi, Egypt, in January 2010.
“It took over a year, and the Egyptian state security court committed serious breaches of due process and fairness in the case of the killings of six Christians and one Muslim in Naga Hammadi,” said Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair. “A new Egyptian government must, in the regular criminal courts, prosecute perpetrators for sectarian killings in the country, and the government should complete a thorough investigation and vigorously prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for the New Year’s Eve bombing in Alexandria that took the lives of at least 23 and injured nearly 100. Incomplete justice does very little to address the perpetual cycle of violence targeting religious minorities that has remained unchecked by the government in Egypt.”
Last month, a state security court in the Qena governorate in Upper Egypt convicted and sentenced to death Mohamed Ahmed Hussein, one of the three alleged attackers in the case. On Sunday, the court ratified the verdict against Hussein but acquitted the two other men who were known to be accomplices in the killings. Hussein is widely identified as the man who pulled the trigger in the shooting that killed seven people outside a church on Coptic Christmas more than a year ago.
Because Egypt continues to operate under a state of emergency, the government has the option to hear cases involving terrorism or drug trafficking in state security courts rather than criminal courts. The emergency laws are widely cited as being restrictive on many human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. In addition, the state security court does not provide the right of appeal in a guilty verdict. Egyptian and international human rights groups have at times been critical of the court’s procedures and limits on the rule of law and due process.
For years, the Egyptian government has failed to take sufficient steps to halt the repression of and discrimination against Christians and other religious believers, or, in many cases, to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom.
In this post, we look back at the horrific attack in Naga Hammadi that killed six young Coptic men on January 6, 2010. The killings remind us that persecution in Egypt is nothing new, but existed long before the revolution under former President Hosni Mubarak. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll discuss the Egyptian government’s failure to bring perpetrators of attacks on Christians to justice, including two of the three men charged with the murders in Naga Hammadi who were acquitted in court earlier this year.
On January 6, as Coptic believers were exiting Christmas Eve mass in the Upper Egypt town of Nag Hammadi, six young Christian men and a police officer were shot dead in the streets by masked Muslim men in a drive-by shooting. At the time, the murders were the largest assault on Copts since January 2000, when 21 were massacred in Sohag. Images of the six murdered young men were a fearful reminder of the 1990s when Copts were routinely killed in bloody sectarian attacks by Islamic militants.
The days after the attack were marked by violent protests – Copts lamented and demanded government intervention while Muslim mobs burned Christian homes and looted businesses. The Egyptian government not only failed to intervene, but escalated the chaos by conducting random arrests of Coptic youth. More than 100 Coptic young men were arrested on January 7th and 8th without charge. Anwar Samuel, a teacher from Nag Hammadi, said Egyptian State Security invaded his home at four in the morning in search of a nephew who was not there, and instead “arrested my three other nephews, Fadi, Tanios and Wael Milad Samuel, and took them away in their pajamas.” They have since been subjected to electric shock torture.
The Coptic arrests were a method of intimidation used by the government to entice Copts to drop charges against Muslim perpetrators. Upper Egypt Bishop Kyrollos, who was the suspected target of the shooting, had previously issued statements rebuking the negligence of Egyptian State Security. Some believe that the arrest of Coptic youth was a pressure tactic to force the bishop to recant his accusations.
Leading up to the Nag Hammadi shooting, Muslim mobs had repeatedly attacked Coptic communities in Upper Egypt. On October 24, 2009, hundreds of Muslim students from Al-Azhar Institute attacked Copts in Dairout, shouting “Allah Akbar!” as homes and churches were ransacked and set ablaze. On November 21, the violence continued as a Muslim mob of reportedly 3,000 raided Coptic shops, burned property and abducted seven Coptic women in Farshoot and neighboring villages. Attacks followed on November 23 in the nearby village of Abou Shusha where Coptic stores were again looted.
Some Muslims claimed that these attacks, including the shooting at Nag Hammadi, were in retaliation for an alleged sexual relationship between a twelve-year-old Muslim girl and a Christian young man. This incident is what initiated the attack on Dairout and prompted a search for the accused young man. When the young man was nowhere to be found, the mob redirected their vengeance against his father. The father, Farouk, after failing to locate his son, was shot dead in the village market of Attaleen. His body was then dragged through the streets and paraded through a cheering crowd.
In June of 2009, President Barack Obama visited Cairo and addressed the Muslim world in an effort to promote human rights. “People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive,” he said. However, Egypt continued to blatantly violate an individual’s right to religious freedom without being confronted. The United States gave Egypt roughly $1.3 billion per year in military compensation and more than $500 million per year in economic assistance, yet the US did not use those funds as leverage to demand that Egypt adhere to international human rights laws. The plight of Coptic Christians must be acknowledged. President Obama can help the case of Copts by applying human rights sanctions on US assistance to Egypt and by affirming that human rights are a core objective of US foreign policy. Without force and accountability, Christian persecution in Egypt will continue to deteriorate, and the blood of Copts will flow from those that suffer a martyr’s fate.