Is Arresting Christian Victims the New Standard in Egypt?

By Claire Evans

07/03/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Harassment and threats of violence are a routine part of life for Coptic Christians in Egypt. Normal daily activities such as a Christian running his business or a community repairing a church are viewed by Islamic extremists as the cause of sectarian division. These extremists often respond aggressively by forming mobs which target the entire Christian community. Within the last six months, a new trend has developed in which the police further victimize Christians by enabling their exploitation through reconciliation sessions.

Disagreements involving Christians and Muslims are often classified by the authorities as “sectarian strife.” In cases where the incident includes violence, it is common for the police to arrest people from both parties pending an investigation. In most cases, it is often obvious that the Christians are innocent and the extremists are using violence to punish or exploit the Coptic community.

Increasingly, the police are legitimizing the actions of the extremists by keeping Christians in custody for an extended period of time. The Christians are charged with generic claims such as “disturbing the public” and “damage to the property of others” until their family agrees to reconcile with their abusers.

Reconciliation sessions are out-of-court settlements that detract from the legitimacy of Egypt’s laws and reinforce a culture of religious discrimination, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Christians rarely, if ever, come away from reconciliation sessions with an advantage. Instead, they are often pressured into relinquishing their legal rights.

This has led many to exercise great reluctance, and even refusal, to enter into a reconciliation session after being targeted by their neighbors. As one victim of a mob attack told International Christian Concern in 2016, “They (the attackers) are free in the village and they threaten us always to force us to waive the case and reconcile with them… But we can’t do that, we can’t waive our rights, our houses were burnt and our properties were looted and destroyed.”

Some point to this kind of reluctance as why today police are increasingly holding Christians in custody. Nasar, a resident of Cairo, expressed frustration at this recent trend. He said, “It is not fair what is happening. When we see that both the aggressor and the victim are arrested, we reach the conclusion that the measures the police use are not built on justice. It is the opposite of what the government claims when they say that the law should apply to everybody.”

“Sectarian strife and the assault on the Copts are being dealt with illegally because security is pressing for stability. The government does not want the press to speak about it or publish stories about it.”

A lawyer, Ayman, further explained why the authorities desire that Christians enter into reconciliation. “It is not a legal act to arrest both parties, the parties being the offender and the victim. Sectarian strife and the assault on the Copts are being dealt with illegally because security is pressing for stability. The government does not want the press to speak about it or publish stories about it.”

“Instead, they (the authorities) are making it look like everything is okay and there are no problems. They make it seem as though it is a simple accident that happens between neighbors and that things get resolved peacefully,” Ayman concluded. In short, customary reconciliation is a tool used by the government to hide the discrimination that Christians face. Thus, the authorities continue to invent new ways to pressure Christians into these sessions.

There are many recent examples which cause concern. Last month, several Christians were arrested following a mob attack in the village of Tarshoub. The mob formed after Christians asked a group of young Muslim men to refrain from swimming naked in a canal which passed by their homes. Police held nine Christians in custody until the Christian community agreed to reconcile. The outcome of the reconciliation session was that the Christians agreed to pay a $14,000 fine if they are found at fault of inciting future offenses against their neighbors.

The previous month, a mob attacked a church and the homes of Christians following news that the church in Beheira would soon be legalized. Nine Christians were arrested. According to Wataninet, “The Coptic villagers claim[ed] that the nine Copts who were arrested had been caught randomly in what has now become common practice by the police in order to pressure the Copts into ‘reconciliation,’ so that no legal action would be taken against the Muslim culprits in exchange for setting free the Coptic detainees and ensuring a swift end to hostilities.”

The list of similar cases seems endless. Even some local officials are surprised that the police have embraced this tactic of forced reconciliation. Said one Minya official, “That everything happening in the villages of Beni Ahmed, Assem, Tawa, Edmo, and the arrest of the victims with the culprit is surprising. And it is being repeated as if it is a standard procedure!”

By using judicial procedures to enforce the practice of reconciliation, the authorities are sending a conflicting message about the status of Christians. If Christians are truly free to practice their faith, then the authorities would protect their rights through established due process of law. Instead, the authorities are sending the message that acts of violence against Christians can continue without fair punishment.

As one Christian said, “Where is the law if the authority responsible for applying the law is afraid of the aggressor? He wants to please the radicals and he is afraid of their reaction so there will be no justice expected for the weak party, who in most cases are Coptic!”

For interviews with Claire Evans, Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org

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