CAIRO: Six Egyptian Copts and a Muslim security guard were shot with a machine gun as Christian worshippers left a church after mass on Coptic Christmas eve last Wednesday.
News of the heinous crime committed in the Upper Egyptian city of Nagaa Hammadi, Qena, shocked the nation, not only because of its sheer brutality, the loss of innocent life and the unjustifiable violence, but also because of the deliberately malicious timing: coinciding with the foremost Coptic feast which also marks the end of a long fasting season.
The horror of losing a family member, whether a brother, son or husband (all the victims were males aged 17 to 29) is indescribable. Forever, the holiday season for these seven families will be associated with the memory of the tragic death of a loved one. Feasts will be an occasion for mourning and grief will overshadow celebrations.
According to the latest news, police have already arrested three over the fatal shooting. The killings, claim some reports, may have been in retaliation for the rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Copt in the nearby town of Farshout last November. Although the alleged rapist was arrested and awaits trial, the period immediately following the rape crime had triggered the burning and looting of Christian homes and businesses by enraged Muslims.
Bishop Kirollos of the Nagaa Hammadi district told various news sources that some of his parishioners had been receiving hate calls on their cell phones and threats alleging that Muslims “will avenge the rape of the girl during the Christmas celebrations.
Until now it is unclear whether or not they had filed complaints to the police regarding theses threats. They most likely did not, which, on the one hand, is indicative of the little confidence ordinary citizens in general and Copts in particular have in the quality of security they expect to receive; and on the other, whether or not they complained is irrelevant, considering that security presence in this entire area should have been doubled and tripled anyway because of the inflamed sectarian tension festering there for over a month and a half.
But let’s give the Interior Ministry the benefit of the doubt: let’s assume that it doesn’t have enough resources to protect the ordinary Egyptian citizen – say because it’s too busy safeguarding Egypt’s national security from infiltrating pro-Gaza activists trying to deliver humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Strip – but, doesn’t it consider the clearly deteriorating sectarian situation in Egypt also a national security issue?
When women’s rights advocates published damning reports about the rampant sexual harassment on Egyptian streets during the Eid, triggering a media firestorm in 2006, subsequent Eids were clearly met with much heavier security presence, which somehow succeeded in stemming the harassment plague and encouraging harassed women to file complaints and even to take their assailants to court. The ministry took action and in some small way it worked.
It is thus extremely hard to imagine how a wanted criminal (apparently the shooter is on some most-wanted list, according to Bishop Kirollos in an interview with BBC Arabic) can be within a 10-mile radius of a Church in a city with such close proximity to another where Christians were under attack just weeks before.
Although I completely disagree with Coptic extremists, who mostly don’t even live in Egypt, and who make hysterical, unfounded claims that Copts face discrimination and are coerced into conversion, no one can deny that over the past six or seven years there have been more and more angry reports of mistreatment and injustice towards Egypt’s Coptic population.
While relations between Muslims and Christians are generally harmonious, disputes over land, houses of worship, inter-marriage and conversion sometimes lead to violence, which must be dealt with swiftly through legal channels.
The element of speed in finalizing such cases cannot be emphasized enough. This combination of frustrated, but increasingly vocal, religious minority in confrontation with an equally frustrated majority, both constantly feeling that justice is not being served is a ticking bomb whose consequences can be fatal.
To the families of the victims of this atrocious crime, we offer our deepest condolences and pray that the perpetrators receive the punishment they deserve.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.