By ICC staff
08/14/2014 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Life as a Coptic Christian in Egypt can be as uncertain and shifting as the wind-blown sands of the sun-scorched desert. Disagreements with Muslim neighbors descending into violence, unprovoked attacks and kidnappings, and even hostility from local police are all able to fiercely whip up at an instant’s notice.
An ICC contact recently reported that, in less than three weeks, fourteen incidents had occurred either targeting or involving Coptic Christians. Most of these incidents took place in the Minya province between Upper and Lower Egypt, where most of Egypt’s Coptic Christian population resides. From intimidation tactics to abductions accompanied by demands for ransom, these incidents vary case by case but all illustrate a common theme: a life governed by uncertainty as the sand is guided by casting desert winds.
Violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt sometimes emerges out of small disagreements and arguments, setting off deeper tensions and spilling over into sectarian conflict.
On August 9, in a case still being investigated by police, a 50-year-old Christian father and his 10-year-old son were injured when neighborhood disagreements between Muslims and Christians erupted into violence. Only a few days before in the Minya village of Farouqeya, a dispute between a Christian carpenter and a Muslim farmer over an ax grew into a whirlwind of turmoil that security forces were barely able to contain. Three people were injured and six were arrested for inciting violence.
More often, however, violence against Coptic Christians is entirely unprovoked and a result of concerted effort, rather than unplanned outbreaks of mob anger between warring sides.
Some of these attacks seem designed primarily to intimidate Christians. On August 7, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood blockaded shops owned by Copts at Palace Square in Minya city. Chanting slogans, they denounced the Christians of their city, Coptic leader Pope Tawadros, and even the army and police. The same day, a mob of Islamic extremists set fire to a car owned by Medhat Khalf, a Christian man who lives in the city of Abu Tig. The mob then attempted to break into his house to burn it as well, but fled when they were unable to do so.
Other attacks are more dangerously direct, with the aim of expelling the Coptic Christians altogether. On July 31, in the city of Mallawi, a Muslim family refused to live with its Christian neighbors and attacked the family next door, injuring five of them. The next day, a Christian man named Nabil Mahrous was ambushed by local Muslims as he returned home, in a plot aimed at forcing him to leave his house permanently.
Constant Threat of Kidnapping
One of the most common attacks on the Coptic community is kidnapping. On two separate occasions within this three-week period, two Christian men – 35-year-old doctor Walid Milad Said, and 26-year-old farmer Bolbol Gamil Zaky – were abducted at gunpoint by masked men. The families of both men filed formal complaints at the police station, but neither were released until their families had paid ransoms of 250,000 and 200,000 Egyptian pounds respectively (in U.S. dollars, nearly $35,000 and $28,000).
Children are not safe from such abductions either. On July 26, Muslims kidnapped two Christian children, nine and ten years old, and demanded a ransom of 250,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $35,000 USD) for each. The next day, another Christian child in Cairo was abducted while playing in front of his house; his father received a demand to ensure the child’s safe return for 1 million EGP (nearly $140,000 USD). Thankfully, in both cases, the families reported the kidnapping to the police, who were able to arrest the kidnappers and release the children back to their families.
Unfortunately, police do not always uphold their duty to protect Coptic Christians, and will sometimes even join in discrimination and hostility against them.
Christians in the Minya village of Ezbet Yacoub learned this harsh reality as they attempted to build a church for their village. On August 2, as the St. George church was still under construction, Islamic militants gathered at the construction site to stop Christians from building, sparking sectarian violence in the village. A few days later, young Muslim men took advantage of a village blackout and began pelting stones at Christian houses, injuring several. The police intervened to end the violence; however, they then closed the building, arrested eleven Christians, and forced them to sign a pledge promising to not complete construction of the church.
A worse incident took place several days later in Hatata, another village within the province of Minya. A Muslim policeman named Rada Mohamed attacked Friar Estefanos Shehata, the priest of Anba Karas church. After threatening the priest with his gun, the policeman ordered Fr. Shehata not to celebrate mass and forced him to close the church before mass could begin. The winds turned quickly and the supposed protector became an oppressor.
An Unchanging Foundation
In Matthew 7, Jesus tells a parable of two men, one wise and one foolish. The wise man, like those who establish their lives on the word of Christ, built his home on an unmoving, unyielding foundation of stone. The foolish man, like those who hear and neglect God’s Word, made a house on shifting sands that could not last long amidst the storms of life.
The Coptic Christians of Egypt are walking through a sea of shifting sands right now. Ever uncertain of their fate, they must be on watch for eruptions of unforeseen sectarian strife, planned and targeted attacks, the continual threat of abduction, and antipathy from those charged to protect them.
Yet amidst the shifting sands of uncertainty and the brewing storms of persecution, the Christians of Egypt have a foundation more solid than stone on which to build their lives. Like all believers who hope to remain steadfast under persecution, their steadfastness does not rely on the constancy of their circumstances, but on the unchanging words of Christ. Grounded on such a foundation, even over the least stable of sands and within the worst of storms, they will not be shaken.
FOR INTERVIEWS CONTACT: Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East: [email protected]