EIPR senior researcher Sarah Carr was in Imbaba last night and wrote the following account of the violent Muslim-Christian clashes that left at least 12 dead and over 200 injured.
The Mar Mina Church is located on Loqsor St, a long unmade road from that branch off the warren of small alleys that make up Imbaba.
Taxi drivers will not risk damaging their chassis here and instead Toctocs – motorised rickshaws – transport passengers over the bumps and potholes.
We arrived at around 11 p.m. and found a wall of people assembled around 100 metres away from the church, held back by three army armed personnel carriers and a row of riot police – armed with batons and tear gas but apparently doing nothing; the sound of gunfire rang out regularly from behind the cordon.
We spoke to a man, Amir Maurice Aziz, who said that he had witnessed events since they began at 4 p.m. He told us that an armed group of Salafis attacked the church “because they wanted the woman that converted to Christianity”.
“They say that the priests are holding the woman inside the church”, Aziz said.
All of the people spoke to said that the events began the same way; with a rumour that a woman, reportedly called Abeer who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man had been kidnapped and taken to Mar Mina.
Writing on her Egyptian Chronicles blog Zeinobia says that there were reports of the kidnapping on Facebook and Twitter, with one Twitter user called @masrislam urging people to go to “a church on el-Loqsor Street” where “a Muslim sister has been kidnapped”. The tweet was hashtagged #anasalafi (“I am Salafi”).
Zeinobia further points out that the rumour about Abeer began two hours after an interview with Kamilia Shehata – another woman who Salafis allege converted to Islam from Christianity but is being held against her will by the church – aired on the Christian Al-Hayat channel. During the interview Shehata denied that she has ever changed her religion.
Aziz said that when the group assembled around the church there was gunfire, and “they entered Christian people’s homes and threw their furniture out of the windows” he added.
The police arrived at around 6 p.m., the army approximately an hour and a half later, “but to no effect. It doesn’t know how to control these people either” Aziz said.
Shortly after we spoke to Aziz a line of approximately 100 Central Security Forces (CSF) troops stood in a line waiting to go through the cordon to the church. Amongst the crowd itself former members of the technically dissolved State Security Investigations (SSI) mingled.
The SSI, notorious for its interference in Egypt’s political affairs, brutal crushing of peaceful political protests and torture of those it designated “Islamists” has supposedly been replaced with the National Security agency, a body with a much smaller mandate.
I saw this officer accompanied by around four other men leave the crowd near the cordon and sit in the lobby of a nearby building. In the crowd itself I was stopped by a man in a suit who described himself as “head of the media section of the security directorate”. The man entreated me “as an older brother” to leave “because he was concerned for my wellbeing” but when challenged desisted.
At one point a large crowd gathered round a man in what might be described as “Salafi attire” - that is white gallabeya and beard – talking to a uniformed police officer (a member of the criminal police rather than National Security). The crowd prevented us from hearing what was being said but these were reportedly “negotiations” about ending the events.
As the gunfire continued there were periodic chants of “Muslims and Christians are one” from a small group in the crowd. A distraught woman in a neqab cried and condemned the events; another questioned why this was happening when “Christians and Muslims were united during the revolution”.
We spoke to a few Christians in the crowd but noted that they were keeping a low profile and seemed anxious.
Approaching the cordon further we saw a CSF soldier being carried out, apparently unconscious.
A journalist colleague reported that on leaving the scene directly in front of the church he was attacked by about a “dozen Muslim protestors” who accused him of being a spy. A soldier fired over their heads in order to disperse the mob.
The journalist says that protestors told him he had been attacked “because they thought he was Christian”.
A bystander, Ashraf, overheard us talking about how to get through the cordon and volunteered to take us through back streets to the area behind the church, with the warning, “I don’t care whether you’re Christian or Muslim but if anyone asks tell them you’re Muslim even if you’re not”.
Despite the heavy cordon placed immediately in front of the church there was virtually no security in the back streets. As we went further, the sound of gunfire got louder until we found ourselves standing underneath the back of the church. A small group of men stood on the corner. As we passed the alley that runs along the side of the church we saw that the street was filled with thick smoke.
According to reports that emerged subsequently a seven-storey building next to the church in which only Christian live had been set alight. A friend says he saw people jumping out of the building in order to escape the fire.
Ashraf took us to a building near the church where he said we could film. As we got nearer we heard the sound of bangs and crashes coming from the ground floor of a building on the corner. Hundreds of men were inside, ripping apart what turned out to be a coffee shop owned by a Christian, Adel Labeeb. The crowd also reportedly attacked [video] a bakery, also owned by a Christian. We did not see other shops being attacked.
The crowd attacking the coffee shop was primarily composed of young men. Only one man was dressed like a Salafi, and the attack – at least by the time we arrived – would seem not to have been carried out by Salafis, at least not in its later stages.
I saw two CSF troops inside the café. It was unclear what they were doing, but they were not making any attempt to stop the crowd. There was a manned Armed Personnel Carrier parked 20 metres away from the café and more CSF troops standing directly outside the café who were similarly doing nothing to intervene.
At a cordon further on along this alleyway a line of army soldiers stood. We saw one soldier fire his weapon (in the direction of where the protest outside the church was), seemingly in the air, although the darkness prevented us from making out exactly the trajectory of the bullet. It was unclear what type of ammunition was being used.
Leaving the building we went back to the cordon by the church. The crowd had grown smaller by this time (around 1.30 a.m.) but at one point the crowd began chanting “there is no god but Allah” as it made a halfhearted attempt to push through the cordon.
We left at around 1.30 a.m. On our way home Ashraf called and said that another church in Imbaba on El-Wahda (Unity) Street had been set on fire.
Exactly 100 days after the revolution - when Egypt’s sectarian divisions were briefly forgotten – eleven people have reportedly been killed, tens injured and Christian homes and shops destroyed. The army announced today that it has arrested 190 people in relation to the events and will try them in military courts, but the question remains why the authorities seemingly sat on its hands while violent protestors attacked the Mar Mina church for hours on end.