Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Attack on St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo

Over 10 people were killed and more than 200 injured in an attack on the St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo, which took place overnight on May 7, 2011. The following information is taken directly from the testimony of two Christians of the church, one named Rimon, the other wishing to remain anonymous.

Approximately 4pm following afternoon prayers, Imam Muhammad Zughbi led between 150-200 armed Muslims a distance of one kilometer to the St. Mina Church. There he inquired about a Coptic woman who, he believed, had converted to Islam who, he believed, was being held in the church. Both sources believe this rumor was completely unfounded, and this was only a ruse by these Muslims to instigate conflict.

Shortly after their arrival church officials called the police. The police were invited to enter and search the premises, but found nothing. They carried this report back to the crowd, and then withdrew.

Having originally arrived with weapons of all varieties – clubs, swords, and automatic guns – the Muslim group began to use them. Christians rallied to defend the church, largely weaponless, but with a few simple pistols. One source said local Muslims participated in the defense of the church; the other denied this, saying they joined in the attack. It is possible both reports are true. Sources say that community relations between Muslims and Christians had been good.

Around 5:30pm Muslims from other nearby areas – Warraq, Haram, Faysal, Umraniyya – heard the news and joined the attack, increasing the number to over 400. Eventually their total was estimated at 3,000. The dead and injured were carried into the church, and fighting continued at the local homes as Christian residents hurled stones from their balconies. In all, three homes near the church were burned, and over 50 shops were vandalized in the area.

The army did not arrive until 10pm, at which point it launched tear gas at the church. Sources stated this was aimed at them, even landing inside the walls, rather than at the Muslim attackers. The Muslims also began attacking the army, launching Molotov cocktails. The army responded by firing into the air, and sources stated they did not actively intervene to end the rampage. Instead, they arrested those in the immediate vicinity as they were able, including many Christians.

The presence of the army did disperse the assailants, who then scattered and attacked other area churches. The nearby Church of the Holy Virgin was set ablaze and completely destroyed around 2am. Three other local churches also suffered damage.

Gunshots continued throughout the night. The next day the army placed the area in complete lockdown mode, arresting anyone coming out of their home. Sources say the area around the church also had water and electricity cut. The minister of the interior and governor were set to visit the area, which was under a 24 hour curfew.

Both sources identified the attackers as Salafi Muslims, due to their appearance with beards and white robes, typical of their traditional dress. They cried ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the attacks. Salafi Muslims are adherents of a conservative interpretation of Islam that desires strict application of the sharia in imitation of the era of Muhammad and his companions. Following the revolution they have been vocal in calling for an Islamic state and have been accused of multiple sectarian attacks on both Christians and other Muslims. Though admitting to their particular religious interpretation, Salafi leaders have either denied their involvement or condemned such violent incidents.

Regardless of the original intention of the attack organizers, accusations of the illegal imprisonment of Coptic converts to Islam in churches or monasteries have been rampant both pre- and post-revolution. A woman named Camilia Shehata, to be mentioned below, is the cause célèbre in this effort. Following the attack on a church in Baghdad in October of 2010, al-Qaeda declared Coptic Christians to be fair game for attack for this alleged crime. Yet rumors are also rampant that sectarian conflict in Egypt was stoked by the former security forces under the Mubarak regime, which have allegedly continued this policy since his resignation.

The above testimony was provided by two sources directly involved in the evening’s altercation. Independent verification of their testimony is not possible at this time.

Since the attacks public response has been both swift and polarized. Prime Minister Sharaf cancelled a scheduled visit to the Gulf region and called an emergency cabinet meeting. The army has arrested 190 individuals and will try them in military courts. Furthermore, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently governing the nation, has threatened the death penalty for anyone found inciting sectarian strife. Salafi leaders and popular preachers, for their part, labeled attackers ‘thugs, not Muslims’, and fully condemned the action. Similarly, many Imbaba Muslims harshly condemned the action as un-Islamic, and said the thugs were tied to the old regime.

Meanwhile, Copts took to the street to protest. A small group went to the US Embassy to demand a meeting with the US ambassador and ask international protection. A much larger and more representative group began assembling at Maspero, site of the Egyptian Radio and Television headquarters. Here, only a few weeks earlier, thousands of Copts protested over several days to demand official inquiry into an attack on a church in Atfih, an area to the south of Cairo. Instinctively, following this conflict, they return again.

Along the way they were met with derision and minor attacks from Muslim youths and other ‘thugs’. Once there, a few suffered injuries as stones were thrown upon them from the balconies above. Yet they were joined by significant numbers of Muslims, including fully covered women, declaring that Muslims and Christians in Egypt were ‘one hand’. Eventually, the opposition settled down and the protest is ongoing.

The rumor about the convert to Islam being protected has received more investigation since the initial altercation. Apparently, a woman named Abeer from Upper Egypt married a Muslim and adopted his faith. Though not required by Islam it is the near cultural necessity, especially in traditional areas, as both religious groups ostracize members who either convert to another faith or marry outside their faith community. Apparently, Abeer later on ran away from her husband, who later received a phone call that she was in hiding near the St. Mina Church in Imbaba. The official version related by the government is that her husband contacted Salafi groups in the area, and asked for their intervention.

Other sources relate that the incident/rumor circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter, identifying the location of the woman by the very street name of the church. The campaign picked up speed, and resulted in large numbers of protestors demanding Abeer’s release. Yet to date, no woman fitting this story has been identified at all.

Of consequence is that the social media campaign began a mere hours after Camilia Shehata appeared on a foreign Christian satellite program, denying she had ever converted to Islam. Previously, Salafi groups had organized seventeen separate demonstrations to demand her release from the monastery where she was allegedly being held. Pictures appeared of her wearing a hijab, but may have been easily Photoshopped. Meanwhile the church released a video of her Christian confession, but this was either ignored or dismissed by Salafis. Poignantly, she never appeared in a live setting to settle the matter once and for all. That is, until this satellite program, which was announced a day before.

Does this suggest the assault on the church was planned in advance, and that the rumor, however true the story of Abeer may be, was constructed to play on the emotions of disturbed Salafis reacting to their mistaken fury over Camilia Shehata?

This is impossible to ascertain at this point, but the location of Imbaba would have been well chosen as a Cairo neighborhood easily ignited by such a spark. Imbaba is one of the poorer districts of Cairo, hastily and haphazardly constructed in the 1970s following large scale population transfers from Upper Egypt to the city. Basic services such as water, sewage, and paved roads were absent, and the poverty combined with the resurgence of strident religious identity drove many toward extremist Islam. The conditions led local Muslim leaders to declare themselves ‘the Emirate of Imbaba’, which successfully secured practical independence from the state, keeping out all unwanted visitors, including police, for a period of weeks. During this time, there were few Christians in the area at all.

After the police broke the siege and reestablished government control, in the 1980s Egypt cooperated with USAID, an American aid agency, to bolster living conditions. The program was largely successful, improving infrastructure and microenterprise, but was also subject to local criticisms. Over time, Upper Egyptian Christians also relocated to Imbaba, and though there were occasional sectarian tensions between them and Muslims, nothing to the extent of this attack had ever been witnessed before. Yet given that community growth was random in constitution, the centuries-long historical bond between Muslims and Christians in traditional village settings, however tested on occasion, was absent from Imbaba.

What is next? It is too difficult to judge all the different conclusions being paraded. Christians are furious at the police and armed forces for taking so long to contain the violence. Accusations are that they deliberately stood aside, yet it may well be they were simply ill equipped to confront such a large, apparently organized attack in an urban setting. Some in Maspero were heard chanting, similar to the revolutionary cry, ‘the people want the downfall of the general’.

Others say this and other sectarian conflicts have been engineered by forces of counterrevolution. Most major former regime members are in prison, and Mubarak himself was recently cleared by doctors to be interred with them as well. Salafis traditionally and in their theology had always sided with the Mubarak government as being established by God. Assumptions abound that they are heavily financed by Saudi Arabia, which was loath to see an autocratic ally ousted from power, and now under judicial trial. With these allegations, the army could either still be implicitly aligned with the old order even as they ‘protect’ the revolution, or, such incidents are meant as a wedge to drive people against the army, invalidating their popular stand with the revolutionaries. Or, it could simply be the interweaving independent errors of misguided action coalescing into deep conspiracy.

Yet on the side of the Christians there is conspiracy-worthy evidence as well. Why was Camilia Shehata silent for so long, only to appear on a foreign, not Egyptian, program? Her lawyer chastised her publically for going against his advice to speak on Egyptian television, and legally with the public prosecutor. This was only days after he procured a photo with her reconciled with her husband, with public documentation he was entitled to speak on her behalf that she was a Christian, never having converted to Islam. Interestingly, even if irrelevantly, the satellite program she appeared on is produced in the United States, and carries frequent testimonies of Muslim converts to Christianity. Provocation could have been anticipated.

Arab West Report has been able to secure an interview with Camilia and her husband. She admitted to marital problems which caused her to run away. Likely ashamed, as often occurs in such situations in Upper Egypt, local Christians and perhaps her family instigated protests claiming she was kidnapped by Muslims. This played into a known narrative which Muslims picked up on, then assuming the reality that she did in fact convert to Islam.

As protests about her increased, Camilia testified she was a Christian online, but this failed to convince the hardened Salafi audience, believing the YouTube video was a fake. She grew and is increasingly terrified for potential violence against her, understandable given the events in Imbaba. All the same, her testimony in this case puts aside the many conspiracy theories surrounding her. She is simple a woman who made a mistake, which amplified exponentially and engulfed a nation.

Yet to return to conspiracy along the same lines, the subsequent Coptic protest at Maspero was their natural destination point. Why then did a few hundred gather at the US Embassy, demanding international protection? This call is consistently rejected by local Christians as being traitorously fatal to their interests as citizens of Egypt. It is heard from Copts abroad, but almost never internally. Simultaneous to their denouncing of the Imbaba attacks, Salafi leaders criticized Copts for appealing to America. Are elements of the Coptic Church or community, perhaps even the United States, also aligned with counterrevolutionary forces?

Or, does all this simply represent the coalescence of error in the midst of confusion? In all likelihood, yes. Deep conspiracy helps to make sense of facts difficult to connect together. Egypt is undergoing significant changes, and these are uncomfortable for all. Conspiracies such as these are on the lips of many, which do not help the effort to foster national unity and democratic development.

Yet it could also be said that once again this tragedy has engendered demonstrations of Muslim support for their Christian kinsmen. The revolution unleashed clear evidence of Muslim-Christian unity from Tahrir Square, confirming the solidarity witnessed after the church bombing in Alexandria. Then, Muslims around the country surrounded churches and joined Copts inside, willing to die with them should the act be repeated.

Now, Christians are worried that Islam in the hearts of Muslims will ultimately make them side against Christians in times of strife. Unfortunately, Imbaba offers evidence of this. Yet even during the hours of attack in Imbaba, groups of Muslims came together in demonstration, proclaiming Muslims and Christians to be ‘one hand’. Post-revolutionary freedom has also unleashed Salafi activity and fervor, threatening the revolution in the eyes of many. Or, could Salafi drum-beating cloud over the essential unity which normal Muslims assert has always been characteristic of Egypt?

Many Egyptians are tired. They have crafted a great revolution but are now running into the realities of their success. Interruption of the national economy has exasperated an already poor multitude. Freedom of expression has brought unwelcome views to the forefront, regardless of perspective. Governance is entrusted to military forces simultaneously valuing stability and seeking to carry out revolutionary demands, all the while having little experience in day to day management and public relations. Political factions argue over issues both major and minor, with consensus rarely apparent.

It is understandable to be tired; yet now more than ever commitment and resolve are necessary. Christians must cling to faith, both in God and their fellow citizens. Democrats must navigate political streams yet maintain unity in the reconstruction of government. Islamists must curb their quest for influence developed over long years of oppression, while continuing sensibly to shape society as they believe God intends. Salafis … I don’t know what is needed here; may God guide them as he guides all the above. May each commit to the other as an Egyptian, and refuse to allow legitimate differences to divide them in essentials. Egyptians have always been one people; perhaps there are forces, both internal and external, which seek their unfastening. Yet these are days of opportunity; a great future is before them. May the issues of Imbaba be brought justice in all its forms; may these be the labor pains following a great revolutionary conception. May belief be held that a baby is soon to be celebrated.

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