Egypt’s Copts mourn their dead

Mourners gathered in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo

Originally published in The Independent, 11 October 2011

Anguished Christian mourners turned out in their thousands in Cairo today to remember their dead and voice their anger at the Egyptian army over clashes that killed 26 members of their sect.

On another day of violence in the Egyptian capital, there was further trouble when angry Coptic Christians threw stones at riot police outside the hospital where dozens of casualties had been brought. And as the leader of Egypt’s Christian minority, Pope Shenouda III, presided over a service for mourners at a cathedral in eastern Cairo, attendees at the mass funeral vowed to defend their faith at any cost.

At the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassia, thousands of mourners chanted “With our soul and our blood we will defend the cross” while waiting for the service to begin. Pope Shenouda III went on to declare a three day period of mourning, prayer and fasting for the victims, who were protesting against attacks on churches in Upper Egypt. “Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons,” the Coptic Church said in a statement.

Yesterday’s clashes came about after a peaceful demonstration by Christians was set upon by plain-clothed regime loyalists. Thousands of protesters went on to fight running battles with the police, army and thugs in central Cairo in what would become the worst violence since the fall of Mubarak. Foreign Secretary William Hague today condemned the clashes, saying it was “important that the Egyptian authorities reaffirm freedom of worship in Egypt.”

Many Christians are pointing the finger of blame at the army, after military vehicles were seen speeding over demonstrators and shots were heard ringing out across the city centre. “It will affect the revolution so much,” said Karima Kamal, a Christian columnist in Egypt. “This is the first time a massacre against the Christians was done by the state itself. This is something that has never happened before.”

As dozens of Christians poured through the metal detectors outside the entrance of the cathedral, mother-of-one Jihan Maher was in tears as she vented her anger over the violence. Pointing to her 16-year-old daughter Madonna, she said: “She is an only child, but everybody who is dead inside that cathedral is her brother and sister.”

The atmosphere before the service was uneasy, with one woman outside berating a journalist wearing a headscarf. “You’re wearing a hijab, but you’re not modest,” she shouted.

Earlier in the afternoon at the Cairo Coptic Hospital, where dozens of casualties had been brought on Sunday night, there had been further clashes when hundreds of Christians attacked riot police – albeit on a much smaller scale than yesterday. Demonstrators outside the downtown building waved crosses and shouted slogans for the dead protesters, such as “Oh martyrs sleep tight, we’ll continue the fight”.

According to one cardiologist from the hospital, doctors were forced to resuscitate patients on corridor floors after being overwhelmed by casualties. “It was a massacre,” said Dr Osama Refat. “I was carrying someone’s brain in my hands. Another person had his leg mashed up because he was run over by a military vehicle.”

Egypt’s interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf condemned the violence, saying it had “taken us back several steps”. He also blamed so-called “foreign meddling” for the trouble and claimed the problems were part of a “dirty conspiracy”.

Yet some protesters blamed the government for instigating the trouble through its broadcasts on state television. At one point during the violence on Sunday night, broadcasts were asking Egyptians to defend the army against attacks. “Egyptian TV was saying that if you are Egyptian and you like your country you should go down and protect the army from us,” said Shady Ahmed, a 25-year-old who was present during the trouble.

The violence has heightened fears among some activists that the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, will try to exploit the crisis for its own ends.

There are already concerns that the revolution has hit the buffers. The ruling generals have said that presidential elections might be delayed until 2013, while the widespread use of military courts to try thousands of civilians has led to accusations of Mubarak-style authoritarianism on the part of the military council.

Following the announcement last month that army chiefs will not be ditching the widely-loathed Emergency Law, some activists believe Sunday night’s confrontations have handed the military another excuse to maintain its stranglehold on power.

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Egypt on the brink as deadly riots hit Cairo

A demonstration by Copts descended into the deadliest violence since Mubarak was toppled

 

Originally published in The Independent, 10 October 2011

Twenty-four people were killed and 150 injured in Cairo yesterday during the most violent scenes to hit the country since February’s revolution ousted ex-President Hosni Mubarak. Reports said trouble escalated after Christians, protesting an attack on a church, threw rocks and petrol bombs and set cars on fire as they clashed with military police.

Gunshots and the sound of exploding tear-gas canisters rang out across the centre of the capital amid chaotic scenes. Thousands of people, some hurling stones and petrol bombs, charged through Tahrir Square as protesters fought battles with soldiers and riot police.

The violence started after demonstrators from Egypt’s Christian community headed towards the state television building in central Cairo late yesterday afternoon.

The protesters, who began their rally from the Shubra district of northern Cairo, were hoping to start a sit-in outside the riverside TV complex to highlight grievances within their community – something Egypt’s Copts have done numerous times in the past without trouble. But, according to witnesses, they came under attack from men in plain clothes who started hurling stones at them. Not long afterwards gunshots rang out at the scene.

By around 7pm central Cairo was boiling over with angry protesters as thousands of youths fought running battles with the police and gangs of regime loyalists.

At the northern side of Tahrir Square, close to the Egyptian Museum, the road was littered with rocks and broken glass as young men launched missiles at scores of plain-clothed thugs standing about 200 yards away near the Ramses Hilton Hotel.

One man, his head tied with a ribbon in the colours of the Egyptian flag, used an axe to bang metal railings like a war drum as more and more activists arrived at the scene.

Nearby, beneath a motorway overpass close to the Egyptian Museum, three teenagers scrambled to extinguish their burning T-shirts after being hit by a petrol bomb. “The army are filthy,” cried out Hassan Asius, 24, as he limped through the square after being hit by a rubber bullet. “People have died. The army are no good.” Amir Shabrawy, a 32-year-old producer, said: “This will be the end of the revolution.”

By about 9pm a tense stand-off was taking place near the state TV building as hundreds of protesters faced scores of baton-wielding riot police and soldiers.

Nearby, on 6th October bridge, which spans the Nile close to the Ramses Hilton Hotel, scores of onlookers had gathered to watch.

The sudden explosion of violence will raise fears that Egypt’s uprising – already labouring under the weight of myriad concerns – has foundered.

Last month the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, said it would be reintroducing the much-hated Emergency Law following an attack on the Israeli embassy.

Many activists will be worried that last night’s violence will offer the generals even greater reason to implement martial law.

Running scared: Egypt’s Christians looking to leave

Egyptian Copts take to the streets

Fears that Egypt’s revolution could be hijacked by increasingly vociferous political Islamists are threatening to cause an exodus of the country’s minority Coptic population.

Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February, large numbers of Egyptian Christians have been making plans to leave the country if political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood manage to take control in elections scheduled for later this year.

Lawyers who specialise in working with Coptic Egyptians – who account for around 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million citizens – say that in the past few weeks they have received hundreds of calls from Copts wanting to leave Egypt because of the political uncertainty.

Naguib Gabriel, a prominent Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, said his office had been receiving at least 70 calls per week from people wanting to know how they can emigrate.

He said: “Every day people come to me and ask how they can get to the American or Canadian embassies. They are insisting on leaving Egypt because the risks of staying here are too great.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he added. “Many Christians are afraid of the future because of the fanatics in the mosques.”

Though much of the focus on Egypt’s uprising has remained upbeat – especially in comparison to the bloody quagmire developing in neighbouring Libya – the period since Mubarak’s ouster has been marred by vicious bouts of sectarian strife.

At least 15 people, Christians and Muslims, were killed last month in a chain of violence which erupted because of a relationship between a Coptic man and Muslim woman in a village south of Cairo.

This led to a hundreds of Christians joining a prolonged demonstration outside Cairo’s state TV building in a bid to secure better protection for the Copts from Egypt’s ruling military council.

In recent days there have also been clashes involving Egypt’s Salafi movement, a fundamentalist Islamic sect which is considered even more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to reports in the Daily News Egypt, a Coptic service centre in Cairo was closed down this week after being picketed by Salafis, while in the Fayoum province south of the capital fights broke out after the sect tried to force the closure of a shop selling alcohol.

It all seems a far cry from the days when demonstrators in Tahrir Square were declaring: “Muslims and Christians are on one hand”.

“The issues now are worse now than in the past,” said Mr Gabriel. “In the past there were problems, but there were long periods between them.

“But after the revolution every day we are seeing new things.”

Mamdouh Nakhla, a Coptic lawyer, said his office was speaking to around 150 people per month who were making plans to leave Egypt because of the political situation.

Some were Muslims, he said, but most were Copts who were worried about the prospects of a Brotherhood-dominated government.

He said: “They want to leave to countries where there is freedom of religion.”

According to both Mr Nakhla and Mr Gabriel, most of the people planning to emigrate want to go to Canada, where there is a large Coptic population of around 50,000.

The Canadian embassy in Cairo said it could not reveal how many Egyptians had applied for visas there since the uprising began.

But Sam Fanous, who runs a company helping Egyptians emigrate and settle in Canada, said that over the past month his office had been “bombarded” with requests from Copts who wanted help in leaving the country.

He added: “I have people coming to my Cairo office until midnight. Often I tell my assistant to shut down the phones because we have so many people calling.”

“The majority of people want to emigrate. Some ask about asylum, but I explain they cannot get refugee status from Egypt.”

Mr Fanous said most of the people coming to him were well-off professionals.

“Some want to go and not come back. Some want to take their families and then come back until it becomes time to leave.”

But he also said there was a difference in attitude between older Copts he had spoken to and the younger generations.

“The young want to fight it out. They were in Tahrir Square and they are not as scared as the older generations.”

Nada Rafik, a 21-year-old Copt from Cairo, said that since the revolution her mother had been making plans to move the family to Canada.

She said: “My mother has been trying to get a Canadian passport for the past year, but since the revolution she’s been saying ‘let’s try and get this done quickly’.

“She is taking precautions and saying that the family has to leave.”

Ms Rafik, a financial analyst, said that she would also consider leaving, but only if the situation got much worse.

“The older generation are more scared than us. They have lived with Mubarak for 30 years and are used to him. Now they are afraid because they see the Egyptian media talking about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, but they don’t see the other side really.”

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected later this year after a recent referendum rubber-stamped constitutional changes which the government had argued were necessary for a fair ballot.

Critics have said that holding the polls this year will benefit only the Muslim Brotherhood and formerly-ruling National Democratic Party, as they are the only organisations currently strong enough to fight an election.

But the Muslim Brotherhood has swatted away concerns it will secure too much power, saying it will not contest more than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats and will field no presidential candidate.