Coptic Church Attacked In Southern Egypt

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Saturday, August 3, 2002

ISTANBUL, February 11 (Compass) -- Coptic Orthodox Christians who gathered yesterday to celebrate their first Sunday Mass in a small village church were attacked with rocks and firebombs by a Muslim mob near El-Minya, 140 miles south of Cairo.

According to local sources in the village of Bani El-Walmous, the armed attackers damaged the church's cross and set the pews on fire. Reuters news agency reported the number injured in the clash at 11, including two policemen.

But according to the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV station's Arabic news broadcasts, 10 Coptic Christians were wounded and 35 nearby homes were destroyed. The BBC reported only four injuries, three Muslims and a Christian, with five homes set afire. Later reports could confirm only 15 Coptic homes burned, with a number of others looted.

After security police cordoned off Bani El-Walmous village yesterday afternoon, independent observers have been unable to verify either the number of injuries or the extent of destruction. "We are still waiting for the details," editor Youssef Sidhom of the weekly "Watani" newspaper told Compass today, after confirming he had a correspondent at the site.

Egyptian authorities quickly blamed the clash on "provocative elements from both sides, Muslim and Christian" in official statements. Security forces told Reuters that after a Muslim mob pelted the church with rocks, Coptic Christians inside the building had fired shotguns at their attackers.

According to the official explanation released by the Egyptian government, the clash was ignited over the ringing of the church bell during the consecration of the new church. In a statement on state-run television, the governor of El-Minya stated that the ordinary Muslims there were "not used to hearing church bells," and this "frustrated" them.

"The problem is not what the mob did," Sidhom commented, "but as always is the case, what the authorities do -- how they behave, and how they comment on the crisis. This always feeds fundamentalist attitudes."

Sidhom said he had learned that Coptic Orthodox Bishop Aghason and the parish priest of the new church in the suburbs of El-Minya had informed local police and security authorities in advance about the inauguration ceremonies for the new church.

"But in spite of that," Sidhom said, "when they started ringing the church bell for the Mass, the church was attacked with stones and small pieces of cloth set afire by the mob."

When the local police force failed to appear, church leaders reportedly telephoned security police authorities in Cairo to request protection for the local parishioners and their guests, caught under siege inside the church.

Although the attack began about 9 a.m., no police officials appeared until 12:38 p.m., when a local witness told Compass a colonel arrived from Maghagha, some 40 miles away. Ordering the mob out of the area, the colonel reportedly housed Bishop Aghason and other clergy in the Agricultural Development Bank for their protection until the situation calmed down.

According to an official government statement, 43 people have been arrested for questioning since the village went under police guard yesterday.

"Tension in Upper Egypt has been fueled by the rise of Islamic militancy over the last 20 years," yesterday's BBC article noted.

Destructive and deadly clashes have broken out repeatedly in Egypt over the building and repair of churches by the Coptic Christian community, who represent 10 percent or more of Egypt's 70 million people. Since official permits take years or even decades to acquire, church constructions are attacked and demolished with impunity by the general Muslim public on the pretext that they have been built illegally.

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.

According to local sources in the village of Bani El-Walmous, the armed attackers damaged the church's cross and set the pews on fire. Reuters news agency reported the number injured in the clash at 11, including two policemen.

But according to the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV station's Arabic news broadcasts, 10 Coptic Christians were wounded and 35 nearby homes were destroyed. The BBC reported only four injuries, three Muslims and a Christian, with five homes set afire. Later reports could confirm only 15 Coptic homes burned, with a number of others looted.

After security police cordoned off Bani El-Walmous village yesterday afternoon, independent observers have been unable to verify either the number of injuries or the extent of destruction. "We are still waiting for the details," editor Youssef Sidhom of the weekly "Watani" newspaper told Compass today, after confirming he had a correspondent at the site.

Egyptian authorities quickly blamed the clash on "provocative elements from both sides, Muslim and Christian" in official statements. Security forces told Reuters that after a Muslim mob pelted the church with rocks, Coptic Christians inside the building had fired shotguns at their attackers.

According to the official explanation released by the Egyptian government, the clash was ignited over the ringing of the church bell during the consecration of the new church. In a statement on state-run television, the governor of El-Minya stated that the ordinary Muslims there were "not used to hearing church bells," and this "frustrated" them.

"The problem is not what the mob did," Sidhom commented, "but as always is the case, what the authorities do -- how they behave, and how they comment on the crisis. This always feeds fundamentalist attitudes."

Sidhom said he had learned that Coptic Orthodox Bishop Aghason and the parish priest of the new church in the suburbs of El-Minya had informed local police and security authorities in advance about the inauguration ceremonies for the new church.

"But in spite of that," Sidhom said, "when they started ringing the church bell for the Mass, the church was attacked with stones and small pieces of cloth set afire by the mob."

When the local police force failed to appear, church leaders reportedly telephoned security police authorities in Cairo to request protection for the local parishioners and their guests, caught under siege inside the church.

Although the attack began about 9 a.m., no police officials appeared until 12:38 p.m., when a local witness told Compass a colonel arrived from Maghagha, some 40 miles away. Ordering the mob out of the area, the colonel reportedly housed Bishop Aghason and other clergy in the Agricultural Development Bank for their protection until the situation calmed down.

According to an official government statement, 43 people have been arrested for questioning since the village went under police guard yesterday.

"Tension in Upper Egypt has been fueled by the rise of Islamic militancy over the last 20 years," yesterday's BBC article noted.

Destructive and deadly clashes have broken out repeatedly in Egypt over the building and repair of churches by the Coptic Christian community, who represent 10 percent or more of Egypt's 70 million people. Since official permits take years or even decades to acquire, church constructions are attacked and demolished with impunity by the general Muslim public on the pretext that they have been built illegally.

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.

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