EIPR Update: Sectarian Clashes in Imbaba, Giza

Press Release

9 May 2011

The government will “strike hard” anyone “who compromises Egypt’s national security” Justice Minister Abdel-Aziz El-Guindy said yesterday during a press conference on Saturday’s clashes in Imbaba.

According to the Ministry of Health 12 people died and 238 were injured as a result of the clashes, which took place outside Imbaba’s Mar Mina Church.

There were reportedly further clashes the day after the attack, on Sunday. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) spoke to one man, Youssef Mostafa Youssef who said that his brother, Ahmed Mostafa Youssef had been shot while the army was attempting to disperse the crowd.

Head of El-Tahrir hospital Dr Hossam El-Hadiq says that of the around 76 cases it received seven people died of their injuries.

El-Hadiq said that patients received by the hospital had gunshot wounds or injuries caused by blunt weapons and knives. He added that gunshot injuries were mostly to the torso and legs, and that shotgun shells and buckshot ammunition was used.

While the majority of patients had either been discharged or referred to other hospitals, two cases remained in El-Tahrir yesterday.

School student Ahmed Magdy said that he was shot in the leg while on his way to his home in El-Loqsor Street (where the Mar Mina Church is located) and that “he had no idea about the events” before he found himself caught in the middle of them.

Relatives of Ahmed Mostafa Youssef had gathered around El-Tahrir’s intensive care unit where Youssef had been taken after having undergone an operation.

Youssef Mostafa Youssef said that his brother was shot around 11 a.m. on Sunday “by army soldiers who were shooting at the crowd”, and that his brother was shot in the liver, kidney and shoulder and that fragments of a bullet cartridge also caused injuries to his lower lip and teeth.

There are conflicting versions of how Saturday’s clashes outside the Mar Mina church began.

All the eyewitnesses EIPR spoke to said that they were fuelled by a rumour that a woman, “Abeer”, who had converted to Islam from Christianity had been kidnapped and was being held either in the church or a building next to it.

This prompted a crowd to gather outside Mar Mina. Eyewitnesses allege that the crowd was led by Salafis, ultraconservative Muslims distinguishable by their dress.

Salafis have been at the forefront of a campaign to “save” Kamilia Shehata, who they claim converted to Islam from Christianity and is being held against her will by the Coptic Church.

Shehata, married to a priest and with one son, recently appeared in a television interview in which she denied ever having changed her faith.

Accounts of the events after the crowd had gathered differ. According to one version, clashes began after Salafis in the crowd opened fire on the church.

Interior Minister Mansour El-Esewy however said during a satellite TV interview on Sunday evening that a Christian resident of Imbaba, café owner Adel Labib, was the first to open fire prompting armed clashes between Muslims and Christians.

A resident of Imbaba EIPR spoke to on Sunday afternoon - and who wished to remain anonymous – also claimed that events began this way, saying that Labib “stood on the roof of the building in which his café is located and opened fire on people below when the crowd gathered outside the church”.

EIPR filmed a large crowd destroy Labib’s coffee shop on Saturday night.

Sitting in the blackened shell of the Virgin Mary Church Street – which was set alight in the early hours of Sunday morning - Father Metraus has a very different version of events.

Father Metraus said that while a woman from Imbaba had in fact converted to Islam from Christianity, the allegation that she was being held in the Mar Mina church is complete fiction.

The priest put Saturday’s events in the context of other recent high-profile incidents involving Muslims and Christians, such as the case of a man in Qena whose ear was cut off after allegations that he was involved in a relationship with a Muslim woman and the attack on a church in the village of Soul in Giza.

Al-Ahram reported today that nobody has come forward to file charges against individuals involved in the destruction of the church in Soul. This is despite the fact that a video has been uploaded online showing the attack in which individuals are clearly identifiable.

“[Attackers] went to Mar Mina Church with the intention of breaking into it, setting it on fire and destroying it like they did in Soul, but [Christians] stood outside the church and prevented them from getting in”, Father Metraus said.

Instead, the priest says, the mob attacked the Virgin Mary Church.

“I got a telephone call telling me that the Salafis were coming to the church. Hundreds came. They shot the locked door open and went in from the front door and the roof”.

A 38 year-old man, Salah Aziz, employed as a church guard was found dead by the altar. Father Matraus says Aziz was burnt alive.

“Education, the media and incitement by Muslim sheikhs” are the cause of Egypt’s sectarian problem, Father Metraus suggested, making reference to a Youtube video of Salafi sheikh Ashraf Abu Anas, who describes Christian churches as “mafia gangs” who carry out “terrorism” and that churches “are full of weapons”.

Abu Anas says in the video that while “those Christian dogs all have guns” Muslims “only have stones”. The video ends with Abu Anas saying, “we are not men if we don’t set fire to Imbaba’s churches”.

Father Metraus says the solution is for the authorities to “strike with an iron fist against the extremists and terrorists who are destroying the country”.

“When they took no action against the people who burnt the church in Soul and destroyed it stone by stone, when all they did about the man whose ear was cut off in Qena was a reconciliation session…Where’s the state? Where’s the rule of law?... The cause is not the Salafis. It’s the state officials who haven’t done anything”.

Immediately after Saturday night’s events the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued an announcement in which it said that it had arrested 190 people in connection with the events and that they would be tried in military courts.

Justice Minister El-Guindy said during yesterday’s press conference that the recently amended law against thuggery and the (heavily-criticised) law banning strikes and protests which impede the work of public institutions will be applied against individuals who threaten Egypt's national security.

El-Guindy announced the immediate application of legislation that criminalises attacks on places of worship, said that gatherings outside places of worship are banned and that articles 86 and 86 bis of the Penal Code will be enforced against individuals involved in similar incidents.

The Justice Minister emphasised the fact that the government’s use of ordinary legislation rather than exceptional legislation such as the emergency law “proves that it is a rule of law government”.

Rights group however have criticised the vagueness of definitions of the terrorism offences described in articles 86 and 86 bis, particularly given that they lay down a maximum penalty of the death sentence.