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By Shahara Amin Al-Monitor

A controversial court ruling acquitting three defendants — a father and his two sons — who had stripped naked and dragged an elderly Coptic Christian woman through the streets of an Upper Egyptian village four years ago, has sparked an outcry from rights groups and the country’s Christian community.

The three men who had been sentenced to 10 years each in absentia by the Minya Criminal Court in January were acquitted Dec. 17 after turning themselves in. Over the course of the last 11 months, several judges had recused themselves from the case for unclear reasons.

On hearing the revised verdict pronounced by the judge, Soad Thabet, the 70-year-old Coptic Christian woman who had been assaulted at the hands of the extremists, burst out sobbing. “God will avenge me,” she cried.

The acquittal comes as Copts prepare for the Christmas holiday, which they celebrate in early January in accordance with the Julian Calendar.

The brutal assault, reminiscent of violent scenes from medieval times, occurred amid sectarian strife in the village of al-Karm in the southern governorate of Minya in May 2016 after a rumor had surfaced of a love affair between Thabet’s son, who is Christian, and a Muslim housewife. Despite the latter’s denial she had committed adultery, the gossip about her alleged extramarital affair with a Christian man provoked a violent backlash from Muslim residents in the conservative community.

Angry mobs looted and torched at least 10 homes belonging to Coptic Christian families in the neighborhood, including Thabet’s home, calling on them to leave the village. Three Muslim men tore off Thabet’s clothes before parading her through the village streets with the intent of humiliating her.

Minya, located 130 miles south of Cairo, is a hotbed for sectarian violence with sporadic unrest breaking out between Muslims and Egypt’s minority Christian population. The tensions are part of a wider continuing crisis for Egypt’s Christians — the Middle East’s largest Christian community — whose members often face persecution at the hands of extremists. 

Sectarian attacks against Orthodox Christians who make up an estimated 10% of Egypt’s population have reportedly surged in recent years with increased instances of violence and threats from Muslim neighbors forcing local churches to shut down, according to an April 2019 article published in The Wall Street Journal.

Mob attacks on Coptic Christians similar to the assault on Christians in al-Karm have prompted members of the Christian community to flee their villages — and sometimes, the entire country — seeking refuge elsewhere. 

It is not uncommon for perpetrators of such crimes to escape punishment nor for Christian victims of such assaults to be arrested alongside their attackers.

“The verdict is a clear example of the discrimination against Christians in Egypt; it demonstrates the deep-rooted bias within the judicial system against Christians,” Mina Thabet, a rights defender who works for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Al-Monitor. “Christians who for long have fallen victim to sectarian violence often fail to attain justice because of the bias of the judiciary.”

Disputes between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula are customarily referred to so-called reconciliation councils — informal alternatives to the judiciary, overseen by members of the security service and comprising village elders and Muslim and Christian religious leaders who act as arbitrators between the disputing parties. While reconciliation sessions at times do succeed in easing tensions, critics such as criminal defense lawyer Nabil Ghabrial insist they “undermine the rights of Christians.”

“The arbitrators are usually more concerned about restoring calm than seeking justice for those whose rights have been usurped,” he told Al-Monitor. “It is a crime that reconciliation sessions similar to the community-based sessions that predated the judiciary are still being held in this day and age.”

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani, a Christian news site, also criticized the customary reconciliation sessions. “In secular societies, all citizens enjoy equal constitutional rights and the rule of law is prevalent; reconciliation sessions undermine the hegemony of the judiciary as they put criminals on equal footing with the victims,” he told Al-Monitor. 

Refusing to resort to reconciliation sessions to settle the conflict with her attackers, Thabet had filed a legal complaint against them, a rare move by a Christian woman in the conservative rural south.

Thabet’s defense lawyer Ihab Ramzy, who is also a former member of parliament, denounced the decision to release the defendants as “shocking” and “totally unexpected.” In a video published on the Cairo 24 news site, he said, “Nothing has changed since the defendants were sentenced to 10 years in prison; no new evidence has emerged since, so the court’s turnabout is a complete mystery.”

Speaking to the privately owned Youm7 news site on the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt, Ramzy said, “It is unacceptable that private citizens are playing the role of the state by preventing the building of new churches.” He noted that recent unrest in several villages in Minya, such as Kom El Loufi and Abu Ya’acub, had been prompted by rumors that churches were being built in those hamlets.

The construction of churches has for decades been a contentious issue, sparking sectarian violence, particularly in the south of the country. Rumors that a church is being built often ignite sectarian clashes that in some cases result in fatalities on both sides. Due to the difficulty of obtaining permits to build churches, some Christians open their homes to worshippers to use them as prayer areas, a move that further fuels sectarian tensions. 

Restrictions on the building of churches date back to the Ottoman era. In recent decades, it was necessary to obtain a presidential permit to build or restore churches. Amendments to the law on building churches introduced in August 2016 have done little to improve the situation and have been met with stiff opposition from the Coptic Orthodox Church that described them as a “threat to national unity.”

An article in the law stipulating that the size of a new church must correspond to the number of Christians in the vicinity has stirred controversy with critics like Emad Gad, a member of parliament, calling it “restrictive.” The condition does not apply to Muslims who can build mosques anywhere, irrespective of the size of the Muslim community in the vicinity.

Coptic Christians, the majority of whom had backed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in successive presidential elections since 2014, had hoped the military strongman would protect them from extremist attacks. But multiple church attacks in recent years and recurring incidents of assault on Christians have left many of them in fear for their lives. 

Although Sisi lambasted the brutal assault on Thabet shortly after it happened, calling it “unacceptable,” he has yet to comment on the latest verdict.

Meanwhile, rights organizations such as the Virginia-based Coptic Solidarity, which seeks to help minorities, particularly the Copts of Egypt, have strongly condemned the ruling, calling it an “egregious miscarriage of justice.”

The semi-official Al-Ahram website meanwhile reported that the Public Prosecutor has asked prosecutors to review the court proceedings, a move that rights advocates hope may pave the way for an appeal.

In comments published via her official Twitter account, Maya Morsy, secretary-general of the National Council of Women, the state agency entrusted with protecting the rights of women, expressed her gratitude to the Public Prosecutor for his decision to review the case and offered to provide Thabet with the necessary legal support.

Many dismayed Christians have turned to social media to vent their anger at the ruling. Some directed their anger at the Coptic Orthodox Church for its “silence” in the face of such atrocities. Others like Khaled Montasser, a liberal thinker and writer, were bemused, seeing obvious contradictions in society’s attitude toward women. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor over the phone, Montasser said that Egypt’s intellectuals should put secularism before democracy.

“The main challenge facing Egyptian society today is the growing religiosity; instead of calling for democracy, intellectuals should first lead the battle for a secular society. There can be no democracy without the separation of religion from politics.”

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