ISTANBUL, March 17 (CDN) — A mob of enraged Muslims attacked a Coptic Christian community in a coastal town in northern Egypt last weekend, wreaking havoc for hours and injuring 24 Copts before security forces contained them.
The violence erupted on Friday (March 12) afternoon after the sheikh of a neighborhood mosque incited Muslims over a loudspeaker, proclaiming jihad against Christians in Marsa Matrouh, in Reefiya district, 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Alexandria, according to reports.
The angry crowd hurled rocks at the district church, Christians and their properties, looted homes and set fires that evening. The mob was reportedly infuriated over the building of a wall around newly-bought land adjacent to the Reefiya Church building. The building, called al Malak al Khairy, translated Angel’s Charity, also houses a clinic and community center.
“I was very surprised by the degree of hatred that people had toward Christians,” said a reporter for online Coptic news source Theban Legion, who visited Reefiya after the attack. “The hate and the disgust were obvious.”
The attack was a rarity for a northern coastal resort town in Egypt; most tensions between Copts and Muslims erupt in southern towns of the country.
According to a worker building the wall around the newly-bought plot, local Sheikh Khamis along with a dozen “bearded” men accused the church and workers of blocking a road early on Friday, staff members of Watani newspaper said.
Worried that the dispute could erupt into violence, one of the priests ordered the workers to take the wall down.
The governor of Marsa Matrouh approved the building of the church center and granted a security permit to conduct religious services in 2009.
Following afternoon mosque prayers, Sheikh Khamis rallied neighborhood Muslims, gathering more than 300 people. The mob broke into groups, attacking the church and nearby houses of the Coptic Christian community. There are nearly 2,000 Coptic Christians in Reefiya.
Around 400 Copts fled into the church building while the rioting mob looted and destroyed 17 houses, 12 cars and two motorcycles, according to Watani.
Local security forces were unable to contain the attack and called-in back up from nearby Alexandria. At nearly 1:30 a.m. on Sunday (March 14) they managed to contain the crowd and let the Christians out of the church.
Police arrested 16 young Christian men among those who were inside the church building, according to Watani. Later, four of them who were released because they were underage told reporters that security forces beat them. Police also arrested 18 of the assailants.
Some of the attackers and security forces were also wounded in the altercation. Of the wounded Copts, two were reportedly rushed to a hospital in Alexandria in critical condition. Sobhy Girgis, 33, was taken to Alexandria’s Victoria Hospital for internal bleeding in the kidney from injuries sustained from rocks the crowd threw at him, and Mounir Naguib, 41, was treated for multiple stab wounds, according to Watani.
Naguib, a teacher, said he was accosted while on his way to the Angel’s Charity building, with a knife-wielding member of the mob asking him if he was a Christian. When he said he was, the Muslim told him to convert to Islam by pronouncing the two testimonies of the Muslim faith (that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger).
“When I refused, he stabbed me in the thigh and hit me on the head,” Naguib told Watani.
One Copt, Nabil Wahba, told of how his house was destroyed. Wahba said he came home at 6 p.m. to find around 40 men hurling stones at his house. At 9 p.m. they came back with clubs and iron pipes, ripping the windows open and throwing fireballs into the house.
“When we tried to put out the fire, they hurled stones at us, while others were pulling down the garden fence and setting the other side of the house aflame,” Wahba told Watani.
Security forces pulled Wahba and his sister out of his blazing house.
On the same day that violence erupted in Marsa Matrouh, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report denouncing Egypt’s legal system for not bringing people to justice for violent acts against Christians and their property.
According to the report, in the last year there have been more than a dozen incidents in which Coptic Christians have been targets of violence.
“This upsurge in violence and the failure to prosecute those responsible fosters a growing climate of impunity,” USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo states in the report.
Since 2002, Egypt has been on the USCIRF “Watch List” as a country with serious religious freedom violations, including widespread problems of discrimination, intolerance and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, according to the report.
Commenting on the Marsa Matrouh attack, the Theban Legion reporter stated that among the mob were members of Bedouin communities who are intolerant of plurality and diversity in society.
“The law of the land is supposed to be a civil law, and we would like to see a civil law applying to everybody,” he said.
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