Copts Lose Homes, Freedom Over Murder Charge

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Months after mosque calls for attack on Christians, victims of riot still awaiting justice.
Milad Samy Zaki

August 14 (Compass Direct News) -- Families of five jailed Christians have lost their homes northeast of Cairo after authorities persuaded them to turn over deeds to their property in exchange for what was supposed to be the release of relatives accused of murder.

Abdel Masih Awad Sayeed, 86, and four relatives in Sharkeya province have been in police custody since December 11. Officials detained the five after the death of a Muslim the previous day prompted rioting in the village of Kafr Salama Ibrahim.

Medical examiners concluded that injuries to Mohammed Ahmad Abu Talib in a fight with two of the Christian men could not have caused his death, but lawyers and a family member told Compass that the two Christians and three relatives are charged with “conspiracy to murder” Talib.

Talib’s death occurred last December 10, when he intervened on his son’s behalf in a fight with Christian brothers Yusef and Wa’el Abdel Maseh Awad, a relative said. The brothers’ cousin, Milad Samy Zaki, told Compass that after beating the Christians, Talib suffered a stroke and died minutes later.

A forensic medical report published in June, more than six months later, found that Talib had 75 percent blockage in his right coronary artery, and that two other arteries contained 60 and 90 percent blockage.

“Advanced atherosclerotic changes were found in all coronary arteries,” said the report, obtained by Compass.

Medical examiners concluded that “superficial injuries” to Talib’s nose, neck and left leg in the fight were “not sufficient to cause a death.” But when the Muslim population of Kafr Salama Ibrahim heard a call from mosque loudspeakers to attack Christian homes, many retaliated under the assumption that the Awad brothers had killed Talib.

“From 2:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes while police did nothing,” Milad Zaki said. “They went to Sayeed’s house, where Yusef and Wa’el Awad’s families were also living, and threw all of the furniture out the window and burned it, beating everyone up.”

According to a police report, the crowd destroyed seven Christian homes and a chicken farm during the rioting.

Almost nine months into the case, the office of the Attorney General only this month ordered that the Christian men’s case be heard in the Mansoura Criminal Court, lawyer Mamdouh Zaky said. No date has yet been set for the first court hearing.

Zaky told Compass that the court could still change or dismiss the charge.

False Agreement

At 1 a.m. following the Dec. 10 rioting, police detained 11 Christians, including many whose homes had been attacked. Among those summoned to the police station were Sayeed, the Awad brothers, Meawad Abdel Maseh and Zaki Samy Zaki, as well as four women relatives, a male relative and an unrelated Christian villager.

One lawyer who came to the police station to represent the 11 Christians said that several of them were still injured from the previous day’s attacks.

“I had to fight with the police to get them to even let a doctor come treat people at the station,” lawyer Fayiza Salama told Compass.

The village remained tense over the next four days while bartering ensued between police and church lawyers for the Christians’ release, Milad Zaki said.

“The Copts stayed inside to guard their homes and didn’t go out,” Milad Zaki remembered. The town’s 60 Christian families were nervous that the Muslim majority, approximately 700 families, would carry out more attacks.

Salama said that there was so much pressure that she declined to represent the Christians in negotiations with the police, leaving the job to fellow Christian lawyer Zaky.

“Father Domadios Ghattas [the village priest] also closed up the church for 10 days after the attack,” Milad Zaki told Compass. “He was afraid because authorities threatened to close down the church, and they said they would only leave it open if the Christians handed over five homes.”

According to Salama and Father Ghattas, police and the deputy governor of Sharkeya proposed that the Christians pay Talib’s family 1 million Egyptian pounds (US$173,900) in compensation – half of which, the officials said, they had already paid with the destruction of their homes.

On December 14, the Christians signed over deeds for five of their properties on the understanding that this would fulfill their 500,000 Egyptian pound “debt” and secure their release.

Six of the Christians were immediately set free, but Sayeed, the Awad brothers, Maseh and Zaki Zaki have since remained in police custody.

“They told us that the civil case had been settled, but that the criminal case still needed to take place,” Milad Zaki told Compass. “The insult of what happened to the Christians in this city was so bad that people just wanted to die.”

Rise in Violence

“If we could go back, I don’t think we would do anything differently,” Father Daniel Habib, a Coptic Orthodox priest from the city of Zagazig who was indirectly involved in the negotiations, told Compass. “The church was closed, 11 people were in prison and a curfew had been imposed on Kafr Salama Ibrahim. The police hadn’t arrested any Muslims who burned the homes and attacked Christians.”

The priest said the Christians decided that by signing the contracts, they had hoped it could save lives. “When you’re confronted with a problem like that,” he said, “you don’t know how to think logically.”

The families of the jailed Christians have relocated to Cairo, according to Zaky, and are surviving with the help of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Lawyers and villagers from Kafr Salama Ibrahim gave Compass conflicting accounts as to whether the deeds for the five Christian homes are in the possession of police or the court. But all sources confirmed that Talib’s family has not received the properties.

Egypt has suffered from a rise in Christian-Muslim violence in recent years. Christian leaders have voiced concerns that the government consistently fails to protect the rights of its largest religious minority, which, due to the absence of an official census, is estimated to range anywhere from 8 million to 15 million people.

Last month a Coptic member of Egypt’s parliament resigned in protest from a committee that she said had failed its mandate to investigate April violence against Christians in Alexandria. The committee had not visited the city or published a report on the unrest that left one churchgoer dead, more than a dozen wounded and three churches and 40 Christian shops vandalized.

Seven Alexandrian Christians remain in arbitrary detention, and the government has done little to compensate shop owners and churches for the damage.

Copyright © 2006 Compass Direct