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Sectarian violence in Gabal-al-Teir, Minya

ICC Note

“The police arrived and besieged the region. Then, under the very sight of the police, the Abed villagers destroyed the wall, pulled out our plants, and burnt our land.”

November 9, 2007 Egypt (Watani)-The rocky Gabal-al-Teir (Mountain of the Birds) towers high above the lush green fields on the eastern bank of the Nile valley in Samalout, Minya, in Upper Egypt. Perched right on top is the breathtakingly beautiful Monastery of the Holy Virgin. And around the monastery is the village of Gabal-al-Teir which has a predominantly Coptic population of some 7000 residents.

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In 2003, the bishopric of Samalout purchased a 23-feddan piece of land south of the monastery to use as a cemetery for Copts and to house a few small enterprises. The area had been targeted for development by the government as a tourist destination and LE10 million were allocated for that purpose. The bishopric obtained all the necessary permits and proceeded to build a fencing wall around the land. Twice the wall was built, and both times it was attacked and pulled down by the Muslim villagers. The security authorities intervened and promised they would protect the site and allow the church to build the wall. But in 2004 the Copts were banned from building the wall for security reasons.

In June 2007 Minya governor Fouad Saad-Eddin gave the bishopric permission to resume building the fence. Two months ago, Muslim villagers again pulled it down. The police interfered and apologised to the bishopric, but no action was taken against the offenders.

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At around 6:00pm on Thursday 25 October, the Coptic villagers were attacked by the Muslim residents of eight neighbouring villages. Armed with weapons and machine guns, they converged on Gabal-al-Teir and began shooting at the Copts. An eyewitness said that attackers were brought in successive truckloads while some other Muslims in ferries along the Nile . In the total absence of any police, four Copts were injured, and the Muslim mob pulled down the fencing wall which the bishopric had rebuilt. When a representative of the bishopric, Fayeq Wilson, rushed to report the violence to the police he was detained. Much later, he was set free.

The police arrived two hours later, after the major part of the wall was demolished, and cordoned off Gabal-al-Teir. This practically imprisoned the Copts inside their village and at the same time gave the Muslim mob a free hand to burn the Coptic-owned fields which lie down the hill, by the river bank. The fields were set aflame, plants were uprooted, the irrigation pumps looted and stolen—a pump costs some LE4,000 to LE5,000, quite a lot of money for the poor peasants—and two half-trucks owned by Copts were attacked. One was a newly-renovated vehicle, and its cost was to be paid in monthly instalments; it was burnt. Eighteen people were lightly injured and later treated at Samalout Central Hospital . The police allowed the mob to finish off the work of demolishing the fencing wall—eyewitnesses claim the police actually helped with the task until the wall was completely destroyed and the guard’s room burnt.

The following day the police detained 22 Copts and 19 Muslims. While Gabal al-Teir was still besieged, some Muslims attacked neighbouring villages, they burnt two houses of Copts in Gabal al-Teir Bahari and some irrigation pumps.

Samalout prosecution, headed by Osama Abdel-Moniem, questioned the detainees, charging them with pre-meditated destruction, arson, trouble-making and disrupting public order. Their detention was further extended for a week.

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Eyewitness reports

Atef A. told Watani how he, together with all the villagers of Gabal-al-Teir, were attacked on Thursday evening through to Friday morning. “The attackers shot at us for no reason whatsoever,” he said. “The police arrived and besieged the region. Then, under the very sight of the police, the Abed villagers destroyed the wall, pulled out our plants, and burnt our land.” Atef said that he and his fellow-villagers could not go down to tend their land; they had to agree to the reconciliation in order to resume their bread-winning activity.

Barakat Hanna, whose half-truck was destroyed, has six children, two boys and four girls; the eldest is 13. “That truck was my only source of livelihood,” he lamented. “I was driving on the road and, before reaching al-Abed I was stopped by some people who accused me of being from the monastery. They forced me to leave the truck, beat me up and destroyed the vehicle completely. My son was screaming in terror.” Hanna was never compensated for his loss.

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Father Ishaq Mahrous, pastor of the church at Gabal al-Teir Bahari, told Watani that the Copts in the village number some 2,000 against some 5,000 Muslims. Before the firemen arrived, Ishaq Shaker’s house had already burnt. “Shaker is a poor and sick man, Fr Ishaq said. He has three children, and the church helps him out financially. Further losses involved the destruction of the plants in the fields of Emad Azzam, Saad Abu-Naguib and Gayed Andrawis, and the burning of livestock huts in the fields.

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Wilson said everyone was now waiting for the release of the detainees who, he insisted, had nothing to do with any unrest; they were just passing by.

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