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Egypt Still Holding Christians Arrested in April Rioting

After nearly four months, government has yet to report on Alexandria church stabbings.

by Peter Lamprecht

August 9 2006

ALEXANDRIA , Egypt , August 9 (Compass Direct News) – Egypt has detained seven Christian men without charge since a fatal knife attack on churches here last April triggered two days of violence in this Mediterranean coastal city.

Disillusioned with apparent government inaction, Alexandrian Christians plan to sue the country’s Interior Ministry for the men’s release, as well as for compensation for Christian-owned shops and Orthodox churches that were damaged during the unrest.

Hesham Azmy Iskender, one of the seven Christians still in police custody, was detained while on his way home from work on Saturday afternoon, April 15, his family told Compass last week.

Iskender’s route took him straight across Alexandria ’s 45th street, where a funeral procession of several thousand Christians was surrounded by riot police.

Police had stopped the procession in front of St. Maximus and Domadius Church but allowed the coffin of elderly churchgoer Noshe Atta Girgis, who had been fatally stabbed the previous morning, to pass.

When his van driver refused to enter 45th street, Iskender exited the vehicle and proceeded on foot, only to be stopped and forced into a police van moments later, his brother said.

Iskender was among 101 Christians and Muslims who were reportedly detained that weekend. Over the following month, police released most of the prisoners. But they continued to renew the imprisonment of Iskender and six other Christians, even after the prosecutor general issued orders for the release of all the detainees in May.

Under Egypt ’s emergency law, citizens can be held indefinitely without charges, their detention being renewed every 45 days.

The seven Christians were initially held for over a month at Montazah police station where they were “beaten and treated badly,” Iskender’s family told Compass.

Conditions were especially hard for one of the young men who retaliated in kind when police beat and insulted him, a Coptic priest told Compass. “He hit the officer back when he was hit and cursed Islam when the officer cursed Christianity,” the priest, who requested anonymity, said.

On May 26, the Christian men were transferred to Gharabaniyat prison on the outskirts of Alexandria . “He [Iskender] didn’t tell us in detail how he was treated, but he did say he’d much rather stay in the prison than return to the police station,” one of Iskender’s siblings said.

The seven detainees were released on August 3, only to be detained again. Five of them, including Iskender, were transferred back to Montazah police station.

Iskender’s family remains desperate for his release. The 22 year-old was the soul-breadwinner for his three blind siblings and crippled father.

“The visit [to see Iskender in jail] every week costs us 240 Egyptian pounds,” Iskender’s brother said. “At least 200 of that we spend on cigarettes that Iskender must have to bribe the prison guards to let him go to the bathroom or have something to drink.”

Iskender’s lawyer, Ahmed Abdel Fatah, said he was also representing detained Christians Emad Wasiq Zaki, Naim Agayby, Demian Ibrahim Hakim, Magdy Adly Ishaaq and Moheb Saad Youssef, as well as a seventh Christian whose name he could not remember.

Christian sources in Alexandria confirmed that the seventh prisoner is Sobhi Naguib.

Fatah, a Muslim lawyer who is said to have come into contact with his clients while they were in jail, was also unable to tell Compass when the group’s next detention hearing was scheduled. The lawyer said Alexandrian police are also still holding seven Muslims in relation to the April incident.

Copt Resigns in Protest

Church leaders have become increasingly disillusioned with government promises to investigate the April events after a committee formed by Egypt ’s parliament failed to report on the violence.

Georgette Qellini, a Coptic member of the People’s Assembly, resigned from the fact-finding group last month in reaction to the committee’s refusal to visit Alexandria .

Headed by Deputy Speaker of the People’s Assembly Dr. Zeinab Radwan, the committee had been instructed to produce a report within one month of the incident. Three months later, with the People’s Assembly going into recess in mid-July, the panel had yet to visit Alexandria and produce a report.

“After receiving reports from the Coptic Church and police, the commission began discussing whether it was wise to go to Alexandria lest they should trigger [violent] sentiments once again,” Youssef Sidhom, editor of Coptic weekly Watani, told Compass. “Due to this lousy manner of operating, one Christian member of the committee resigned.”

Legal Action

With their hopes for the seven Christians’ release diminishing, Alexandria ’s Christians have begun discussing legal action against Egypt ’s Interior Ministry.

“We thought that the parliamentary committee would reimburse us for the damage to our shops and free our young men,” a lay leader at Al-Quidissin Church told Compass. “Now we’ve started to think about going to court.”

Yesterday Iskender and his jailed companions contacted Christian lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla and asked him to sue for their release.

The Coptic human rights attorney told Compass that he had also been consulted about opening two other cases against the Interior Ministry. He said that Alexandrian Christians want to sue for compensation for 40 Christian-owned shops and three Orthodox Churches that were damaged by Muslim rioters, and that Girgis’ family was considering suing the government for not trying their father’s killer.

Mahmoud Salahedin Abdul-Razik, whose knife attacks on three churches triggered the April violence, was declared mentally unstable by a panel of psychiatrists in July and has been receiving treatment at the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital in Cairo , Nakhla said.

Alexandria ’s Chamber of Commerce has restored the exteriors of most shops, Coptic priest Badaba Bikheet told Compass. But the government has done nothing to compensate store-owners for the looting carried out while police stood watching, the priest said.

Lone Assailant Blamed for Killings Sparking April Unrest

Al-Quidissin, in Alexandria ’s Sidi Bishr district, was one of three churches hit in the April 14 knife attacks that killed one person and wounded more than a dozen others.

Police arrested knife-wielder Mahmoud Salahedin Abdul-Razik the same day, immediately claiming that the 25 year-old university graduate was mentally unstable.

Coptic leaders expressed doubt that a lone man could have carried out attacks on three separate churches more than 15 kilometers (nine miles) apart, or that the government could have so quickly ascertained the man’s mental instability.

The following day a funeral procession of several thousand Copts was halted by riot police in front of St. Maximus and Domadius Church as it made its way down 45th street. Father Badaba Bikheet said that he had watched events unfold from a high church window as a second row of riot police blocked in the crowd from the direction they had just come.

“All of a sudden, a group of 300 Muslim men armed with large knives charged out of a side street on the opposite side of the riot police,” Bikheet said. “Police kept the Christian crowd in front of the church from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. while the Muslims destroyed more than 40 Christian shops farther up the street.”

The rioters attacked nearby St. George’s Church later in the evening but were repulsed by a small group of Christian young men who threw glass bottles at them from behind the church gate, the priest said.

The Muslims then moved up the street to the Virgin Mary Church where they burned the church office, the ante-room used for baptism and the church records.

“The men arrived at the [Virgin Mary] church at 8 p.m. and spoiled it until 1:30 a.m.,” Bikheet said. “We made more than 100 phone calls to the police and fire department, but the only response we got was, ‘When it goes up in flames, then we will come.’”

The next day police arrested dozens of Christian young men armed with knives and sticks who had gathered in front of St. Maximus and Domadius Church in response to rumor that police and fundamentalist Muslims were planning to attack the building, Bikheet said.

Later that evening, a crowd of 3,000 Muslims and Christians staged a march for peace in Asafra where much of the violence had taken place.

“It wasn’t real reconciliation; the police forced many of the 300 [Muslim rioters] to take part,” Father Bikheet commented. “I was also forced to march with them in order to appease our people [Copts].”