Rights group: ‘Reconciliation’ works against Copts in Alexandria village

In a continuation of the policy implemented under the Mubarak regime, victims of sectarian violence are still being forced to renounce their right to justice under the law and accept the results of illegal “reconciliation sessions,” the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said in a statement on Sunday.

EIPR’s report, “The Crimes of Amereyya: Collective Punishment of Copts and State-Aided Sectarian Attacks,” describes sectarian violence that began in the Alexandrian village of Sharbat at the end of January and demonstrates how extra-legal solutions for sectarian problems can be to the detriment of Christians. 

The violence, and the series of informal “reconciliation sessions” held since, resulted in the forced expulsion of eight Christian families from the village. Some of the families had nothing to do with the alleged illicit relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman that allegedly took place and which sparked the events, EIPR said.

At 2 am on 27 January, a policeman from the Amereyya police station told Mourad Gerges, a Christian, and Abdel-Salam Taeema, a Muslim friend, that an investigations officer had summoned them to the police station.

Upon arriving to the police station, their mobile phones were confiscated and they were informed that a rumor was circulating about photos and videos showing Gerges in a sexual relationship with a Muslim woman. Taeema allegedly leaked this information to residents of Sharbat village, where the two men live.

By 3pm on Friday, thousands of Muslims from Sharbat and neighboring villages had gathered outside the Gerges’ home, chanting religious slogans and carrying rocks, sticks, Molotov cocktails, knives and guns.

Unable to get through the iron doors of the Gerges’ house, the angry crowd broke into and looted three shops owned by Gerges and his two brothers, Nabil and Malek. Muslim neighbors, concerned that the fire would spread to their properties, prevented the crowd from setting fire to the shops.

Members of the crowd then proceeded to the homes of other Christians and threw stones at them before breaking into and looting shops located underneath the houses before setting fire to the shops. Some Muslims ensured the physical safety of their Christian neighbors without intervening to stop the looting and arson, EIPR says.

A Christian resident, Louis Abeskhayron Suleiman, fired gunshots while a shop owned by his father was being looted and set on fire, which resulted in an exchange of gunfire.

Christian residents and church leaders telephoned the police, army and fire department for help but they only intervened at 9 pm — by which time a number of homes were on fire, EIPR says. Security forces reportedly informed callers that they would only go to the village when the situation had calmed and the crowd had dispersed.

A number of Muslim religious leaders intervened in order to calm the situation, and a car was brought in to take Suleiman’s family out of the village.

Muslim residents formed groups to protect both the properties of the Christians who had left the village and the Christians who had chosen to remain in it.

A delegation of Nour and Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) MPs headed to the village together with the Governor of Alexandria Osama al-Fouly and the head of the Security Directorate on 27 January. It was agreed that Gerges would leave the village. Gerges was also remanded into custody pending investigations, together with his friend Taeema, for 15 days.

Salafi leader Ahmed Sherif al-Hawary, priest Boqtor Nashed and Nour Party MP Essam Hassanein met on 30 January. They agreed that Gerges’ family would also leave the village and another meeting would be held in February to look into Suleiman’s use of a gun during the events of 27 January.

Informal meetings, often known as “reconciliation sessions,” typically organized by religious leaders and police officers, are heavily criticized by rights groups, who say that they inflame sectarian tensions by failing to bring criminals to justice.

Muslim residents of the village again congregated and chanted anti-Christian slogans when imams informed them of the results of this meeting. Another house owned by the Suleiman family was set on fire.

Khaled Shalaby, head of Alexandria’s criminal investigations unit, attended the second meeting held on 30 January, together with Hawary, Nashed, Suleiman and seven representatives of Muslim families in the village.

According to EIPR, Muslim attendees of this meeting announced that eight Christian families, all relatives of Gerges or Suleiman, would be made to leave the village. They also decided that the families’ possessions would be sold by a committee headed by Hawary within three months.

When Christians present in the meeting objected to this outcome, they were informed that anyone who chose to return to the village would do so at his own risk.

Further attempts were made to allow Abeskhayron Suleiman and his family to return to the village. During a meeting on 9 February involving Hawary and the individual appointed to sell the Christians’ possessions, Muslim attendees said that Suleiman’s presence in the village would cause discord in the village and that neither he nor his family’s safety could be guaranteed.

EIPR says that the law does not allow the crime of arson to be dealt with through reconciliation and that Alexandria Governorate officials who oversaw the informal agreement committed a “flagrant violation of the law.”

“Shame on executive and legislative officials for providing legal cover for crimes in the form of a reconciliation that punishes victims and clears criminals. As long as the judiciary and the People’s Assembly do not intervene to address this injustice and reinstate legal sovereignty, they are partners in these crimes,” said EIPR researcher Ishak Ibrahim.

In a news item posted today on FJP’s English website, FJP media spokesman Hossam al-Wakil emphasized that the Bedouin nature of the village makes elders’ reconciliation meetings ideal for solving problems there. He stressed that the issue can do without statements that might inflame sectarian strife in the village again.

Wakil added that “media reports depicting the situation as a Copts displacement crisis is very dangerous, misleading and just not true at all,” according to the FJP website.

According to Wakil, a Muslim family has also been made to leave Sharbat. EIPR is unable to corroborate this, according to Ibrahim.

Copts are now living in the village “among Muslims, without any problems whatsoever,” Wakil says in the news item.

Meanwhile, Parliament has yet to formally address the issue.

Adl MP Mostafa al-Nagar tweeted Sunday afternoon that MPs will continue discussing the issue in a meeting to resume after Parliament adjourns.

“Please can people sitting at home stop sharing their baseless opinions about Amereyya. The subject is extremely complicated,” Nagar said.

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