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When Sectarian Conflict Finds a Local Solution, Copts Lose

EIPR's Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?
EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?

This article was first published at Egypt Source:

What is the value of a presidential visit to the papal cathedral for a seventy-year-old Copt driven from his village? What good are warm relations between Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros if relations remain tense between Youssef Tawfiq and his Muslim neighbors?

A new report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says this problem runs far deeper than Sisi and Tawfiq. Over the past four years, twenty-three other Copts have been forcibly displaced from their homes out of forty-five cases examined by EIPR where community justice—rather than legal procedure—has mediated sectarian clashes.

In Jordan, far from the village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo, Tawfiq’s son Ayman was alleged to have shared insulting pictures of Muhammad on his Facebook page. Upon hearing the rumor, which Ayman denies, a mob gathered and set fire to his family’s homes and fields. An overwhelmed mayor and village officials, with police present, conducted what is known as a ‘customary reconciliation session’ (CRS). Meant to subdue tensions and restore order, village elders debated a just solution.

Ayman’s father, mother, and sixteen other relatives were ordered to leave town.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit at EIPR. Report author Ishak Ibrahim was even more explicit. “If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian conflict, but it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions,” he said.

As EIPR details in its forty-five cases, rarely are individuals from the mob arrested. When they are, many times the reconciliation agreement stipulates the relinquishing of judicial procedure. All of this is contrary to the law. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. While Article 185 of the penal code allows a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

The EIPR report shows two primary controversies: The first is the free practice of religious ritual, including the building, expansion, and renovation of churches. At 31 percent, it is only slightly more frequent than clashes involving romantic relationships between a Muslim and a Christian, at 29 percent. Land and property disputes constitute 16 percent and expressing opinions on religious matters make up 8 percent, as in the case of Ayman.

At times sectarianism is at the heart of the problem; at times normal community problems escalate along sectarian lines. But among the most controversial aspects of CRS is the presence of police.

“Traditional sessions do not conflict with the law at all, they have to do with the prevention of bloody conflict,” former security director for Minya Sayyid Nour el-Din, told OnTV, defending police practice. “The security presence is to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.” But in some cases EIPR studied, the police participated in issuing decisions. In others they randomly arrested people on both sides to exert pressure to accept the CRS process.

EIPR does not condemn CRS entirely, as in non-sectarian cases it has the potential to reach a consensual opinion and avoid lengthy legal processes. For Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani which helped break the story in Kafr Darwish, reaching a fair outcome in sectarian conflict is rare. “Usually it is humiliating, as it forces the will of the stronger party upon the weaker,” he said. “When security officials let this be done under their eyes and blessing, it is a very grave mistake.”

At stake is the sovereignty of the state, he said. But perhaps it is getting better? The report said there were twenty-one cases under transitional military governance after the fall of Mubarak, at a rate of one per month. President Morsi’s year in office witnessed fifteen, at a rate of 1.25 per month. Under Mansour and Sisi, only nine cases were reported over eighteen months through the end of 2014, when the reporting concludes.

Then again, Ibrahim said there have been six cases in the first half of 2015. The problem is not going away.

After a media outcry, the governor of Beni Suef intervened and security returned Youssef Tawfiq and his family to their homes in Kafr Darwish. Sidhom believes President Sisi acted quietly behind the scenes. “I don’t consider this a happy ending as the law is still not enforced,” he said, noting that to his knowledge, none of the mob are in prison nor have any in the police force been disciplined. “You cannot live under the mercy of the president rather than the rule of the law.”

As with much else in today’s Egypt, the issue falls to Sisi. He has done much to try to change a culture—visiting the cathedral and calling for the reform of religious discourse. But will he follow through to change a reality? Will he be able?

Egyptians have respect for the strong leader. They have less respect for those who ‘talk.’ If Sisi sets the right tone—backed by holding accountable those responsible for undermining state sovereignty—others will walk in step with him and help transform the culture over the long run.

But not if he is weak. The president has shown a strong hand in asserting control over the Egyptian state—despite international criticism over violations of human rights. Similarly, if Sisi is intent on a new relationship with Egypt’s religious minority (as implied by his rhetoric and meetings with Pope Tawadros), he will have to face possible domestic and institutional criticism to assert it further by arresting aggressors and disciplining enablers.

“We put responsibility on the government,” said Ibrahim. “It is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

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Community ‘Justice’ Expels Copts from their Homes

A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, from Misr el-Balad
A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, via Misr el-Balad

My new report for World Watch Monitor, published June 17:

Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.

“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by the group – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions.”

In concept, Customary Reconciliation Sessions are community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, “wise men” of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, the Customary Reconciliation Session is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the session took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them,” a local Copt, choosing anonymity, said.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a Customary Reconciliation Sessions and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us.”

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and more than 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News, the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, which helped first report the story, is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told World Watch Monitor.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state.”

Ishak Ibrahim

 (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015
Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015

The incident was unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a Customary Reconciliation Session. But Ishak Ibrahim, lead author of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report, said the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.

“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land or other property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after penalties, often exorbitant, had been stipulated by a Customary Reconciliation Session. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

‘Relocated’

Even the “Martyrs” Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had to be “physically relocated” following protests and a subsequent Customary Reconciliation Session.

Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.

World Watch Monitor previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of Islamic State. Mideast Christian News  has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the Customary Reconciliation Session agreement continues to demand he not return home.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdulrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Abdulrahman explained that those who conduct the reconciliation sessions often view them as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly endorses the process.

And in a rare departure from Coptic restraint in criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in Customary Reconciliation Sessions. He told a Coptic satellite television channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.

General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”

Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions following sectarian incidents. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.

The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of the government.

This latter sentiment was emphasized by Amr Abdul Rahim, a former member of parliament from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.

“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” Abdul Rahim said. “(The church clergy) have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”

Though Abdul Rahim insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, his criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity.

‘Roots of the Problem’

Statistics assembled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated the use of one Customary Reconciliation Session per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the rate rose to 1.25 per month.

It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.

“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim, the report’s lead author.

Sidhom tied Customary Reconciliation Sessions to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship. Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.

But Ibrahim emphasized he is not against Customary Reconciliation Sessions in principle.

“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV. “The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”

But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians, like Muslims, avail themselves readily of a Customary Reconciliation Session, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases.

“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told World Watch Monitor. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”

Anton speaks from a long experience with Customary Reconciliation Sessions, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he said, which was an emergency situation.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that its 45 cases detail only Customary Reconciliation Session use following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.

“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”

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As Egypt Picks Next President, Christians Play Biggest Political Role in Decades

EGYPT-VOTE-COPTS

From my article at Christianity Today, published May 27, 2014:

For Egyptian Christians, today’s presidential election is not much of a contest.

Most support General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in appreciation for his role in deposing previous president Mohamed Morsi and ending the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. A smaller, younger contingent leans toward leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi out of appreciation for the revolution and skepticism of another military leader. But most on both sides expect Sisi will win handily, and most welcome the new era to come.

“This election [brings] great expectations to welcome a new Egypt with Muslims and Christians as equal citizens,” said Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Cairo’s Kasr el-Dobara Church, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East.

But while most Christians are solidly in the camp of Sisi, many are taking advantage of the opening of political space after the January 2011 revolution to win leadership positions in a variety of political parties.

The article highlights one Christian woman who has become the first to head a political party in Egypt, supporting Sabbahi, and a man who is a founding member of another, supporting Sisi. A third figure is a human rights advocate seeking fair treatment for the Muslim Brotherhood, standing against the tide.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events Jayson

Imbaba: Voices for Peace Present, but Overwhelmed

Onlookers view the burnt Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba

The sectarian attacks in Imbaba on May 7-8 have been widely written about and criticized. Indeed, it was a horrible blemish on Egypt that reeled the nation. Consensus seems to say that the action was planned and executed by Salafi Muslims at the behest of some interest outside of Imbaba. That is, the attack and burning of the church did not spring from neighborhood issues. How far outside of Imbaba is debated, but though the spark came from elsewhere, the fire burned internally. Amidst the condemnations, it is necessary to note it consumed also local Muslim efforts at peace.

These observations were taken from a thorough investigation conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. This organization has often written about sectarian tensions; in this case, their chief criticism falls on the security forces for failing to get involved to stop the fighting. Yet the testimony they assemble is enlightening. Their report (Arabic only) can be found here.

The basic story is that a group of Salafi Muslims assembled at the St. Mina Church in Imbaba, responding to a request from a spurned Muslim husband that his wife, a Coptic convert to Islam, was being held inside. They demanded to search the premises, Copts began assembling to defend the church, and eventually more and more Muslims filed in, causing multiple deaths and over two hundred injuries. The woman in question did indeed flee from her Muslim husband, was a convert to Islam, but was not present in the church. The episode was a lie propagated to launch an attack on the Christian landmarks of Imbaba.

That the episode was a lie was an early discovery, not of the church or the security forces, but of a Salafi Muslim imam of Imbaba. He heard the story from the belligerent Salafi crowd which originated from outside the area, but announced it to the ordinary people gathering as a falsehood. In what seems to be an unfortunate coincidence, as he was declaring his opinion gunshots were fired, perhaps from the Christian side, if only in the air to dismiss the crowds. Quickly things began to spiral out of control.

Yet not before several other attempts were made to quiet the situation. Local youths banded together and began chanting, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ while a woman fully covered in niqab shouted, ‘What is happening to Egyptians? Weren’t we all united in Tahrir?’ Yet a group of Salafis broke into their ranks and scattered them, shouting, ‘There is no god but God, and the Christians are the enemies of God!’

Meanwhile, another bearded resident of Imbaba began shouting at them, quoting from the Qur’an, ‘Fitna (spreading religious strife) is worse than killing.’ He continued, ‘Whoever spreads fitna will go to Hell!’, and began to chant, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’

Yet the Salafi group urged the local population otherwise. ‘The Christians have gotten too big for their britches; how can you allow the minority to rule over the majority?’ ‘Muslims, why are you silent? Thirty or forty Muslims have died, and you are silent as the Christians beat us?’

Within the tumult these voices triumphed. By this time Christian families had taken to defend the church and their homes by climbing their roofs and throwing down objects on the attackers. It was probably easy for the ordinary Muslims of Imbaba to get swept up in the rapidly boiling sectarian conflict.

This is not an apology for them. They are guilty for allowing rumor and propaganda to tilt their hearts against their Christian neighbors. This post is only to highlight that there were brave Muslim voices who tried to speak up for the unity of their community. Had this been only a local altercation perhaps they would have succeeded. That it came from outside, from Salafis bent on igniting fitna, it quickly overran and silenced the local voice of reason and tolerance.

In this light, careful encouragement of restraint on the part of the Christians does not exactly hit the mark. If someone is insistent on causing trouble, perhaps there is little that can be done. Yet another aspect of the EIPR report shows how Christians did respond in ways to defend other areas of Imbaba.

Before too long news of the attacks were broadcast on the Christian satellite channel, al-Tariq (The Way). Christians were informed of the efforts to attack all the churches of Imbaba, and urged to assemble in them for their defense. Thousands did, some even coming from other areas. They witnessed small groups of Salafi Muslims driving around in Jeeps, yet when they saw the churches full of people, they passed by. At one location where Salafis still tried to enter and cause damage, they apprehended two and turned them over to the military police. Yet at another location, the Salafis found no Christian crowd, only two church workers behind locked doors. As described in an earlier report, after shooting off the lock, they killed one, another was saved through intervention of a local Muslim, and then they burned the church.

What can one say in retrospect that could have staved off disaster? As EIPR highlighted, the failures of the security forces gave open hand to the assailants. Yet if Christians had not been so quick to fight back, might the Salafi imam’s pronouncement of a lie had been heard? Or would the damage suffered by their community been even greater?

Yet if it is true that outside forces are stimulating conflict in areas more likely to suffer outbreak, how can citizens, both Muslim and Christian, be better prepared should it happen again, elsewhere? Many Christians say privately that Islam in the heart of a Muslim will have him always side against the Christian when conflict arises. This was one of the calls of the Salafi assailants: ‘Muslims, defend your Islam!’ In a crisis situation with limited information, can the ordinary members of a neighborhood resist such a call? Many will rally in the open squares after a tragedy, condemning it and proclaiming, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ Yet for those, as in Imbaba, who proclaim it into the face of a developing tragedy, can they prove it true and prevent the horrors?

I cannot speak well for what is necessary on the Muslim side. Should I have opportunity to speak with the Salafi sheikh in Imbaba who proclaimed the lie, I will ask him. Yet Christians must overcome their privately confessed fears, and begin public assertions of trust. They must get into their neighborhoods, make relationships, and win friends. All voices in Imbaba have stated that previously relations in Imbaba between Muslims and Christians were fine. I’m sure this is true, but they were not ‘fine’ enough.

Maybe Christians will say they have tried, and it doesn’t help. Perhaps. But it should be remembered, there are thousands of villages and neighborhoods in Egypt that have not ignited in sectarian strife. From fear of Imbaba, knowledgeable that outside forces are at work, ‘fine’ must become ‘strong’, and ‘mutually respectful’. It may not be enough, if some are bent on sowing seeds of fitna. But the effort at resistance cannot be any less than this.