Unity calls fight to salvage peace in wake of sectarian clashes

Around five thousand mourners flocked to St. Samaan Monastery in the Christian-dominated Garbage Collectors neighborhood on Thursday to mourn eight of those killed during Tuesday attacks on Coptic protesters.

The Copts took to the streets in the wake of the Atfeeh Church burning the previous day in Helwan. Thirteen people were killed and 134 reported injured in the attacks by live ammunition, burns sustained from Molotov cocktails, and other weapons. At least one local Muslim also fell to the violence. 

Weeping mothers and distressed community members gathered to pay their last respects, amid rumors that thugs are planning renewed attacks on the neighborhood's Coptic community on Friday. 

“Only half the men will be going to bury the martyrs in the Mary & Hanna cemetery (a ten minute drive away)," said factory owner, Abu Ramy. "We cannot leave the place unguarded in these conditions.”

On top of dealing with the loss of loved ones, the area–known in Arabic as the Zarabeen neighborhood–will be coping with the loss of much of the local employment infrastructure. Two days on, fumes are still emitting from the remains of the burned factories and pick-up trucks that were targeted during the attacks. 

“Our work all has to do with garbage collection. The trucks collect them. The factories recycle plastic, cardboard, and scrap metal. Families otherwise look for usable items to reshape and sell back,” said Onsy, a 27 year-old garbage collector. 

Onsy says no one has been going to work out of despair, fear for their families, or because their means of work has been disrupted. 

“There will be a big problem in Cairo soon because of this, but the bigger problem now is the safety of our families who didn’t deserve to witness all of this bloodshed,” he said.

Mourners and Archbishop Benjamin of Mounefeya Governorate–who attended the funeral as the ailing Pope Shenouda III’s delegate–were uplifted by a show of unity from their Muslim neighbors in the Ezba area in Mansheyyet Nasser who came to stand with them in solidarity Wednesday night.

“The army decided to retreat last night around 11PM, and we felt vulnerable to more attacks. We felt safe again when some of the Muslims from around came to stand guard with us and to show unity last night,” said resident Ameer Marzouk.

The Garbage Collectors neighborhood on Tuesday rang out false rumors that the two mosques in the area were being burned, helping fuel the fire of sectarian tension. Both mosques still stand unscathed. 

“I was in Abdelrahman mosque, and the Copts from the area made sure it was protected, the same way I will protect them if anyone comes to attack us here,” said Yahya, a 30 year-old garbage collector from the area. 

Coptic men confirmed that Anba Samaan, the head priest at the monastery gave clear orders during the attack that the mosques were not to be touched. Despite this show of unity, many fear a combination of rumors, as well as incitement from extremists and thugs are fomenting sectarian tension once again. 

“This is all from the way the government has been treating us for the past twenty years. The government and extremist Muslims have made it unbearable for us,” said Maurice a retired factory worker.

A sizeable portion of the 30 thousand people that reside in the area filled the monastery’s impressive amphitheater on Thursday. The mournful air transformed to anger when the archbishop, after praising the resilience of the community and the show of unity, also thanked the armed forces.  Amid the resulting furor one man took the microphone and said, “we do not want to thank the military, many of those here were killed by their bullets.”

Anwar Abd Elelah says the military did not intend to shoot directly at those in the neighborhood, “but shot into the crowds when the fighting became very intense. The thugs came in to loot and vandalize, not caring who they hurt on the way.”

The charged and sorrowful scenes from Thursday’s funeral seem destined to ensure a difficult healing process. 

“We will never forget him…his youth was stolen,” said the weeping mother of Ashraf Fawzy. 

Calls from within the church and neighboring Muslim communities to stand as one have, however, left many hopeful the future lay brighter.  

It is time “rise above, like the martyrs…and fight death with life,” Archibishop Benjamin said before ending his eulogy.

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