State of fear: Egypt's Copts in peril

Young Egyptian Coptic men display their Christian tattoos in October 2011. These tattoos are a rite of passage within the community and the pain felt while receiving them is seen as a small taste of the pain they believe Christ endured during the crucifixion.</p>

Young Egyptian Coptic men display their Christian tattoos in October 2011. These tattoos are a rite of passage within the community and the pain felt while receiving them is seen as a small taste of the pain they believe Christ endured during the crucifixion.

CAIRO — Just through the windows of a Coptic Christian hospital was a perfect portrait of Egypt’s complex religious landscape: Church spires with Coptic crosses reaching into a purple-and-pink-stained sunset were framed against the crescent of a mosque’s taller minaret from which the Islamic call to prayer carried on the hot city air. Inside the hospital's white rooms, five Copts lay recovering in white beds while families walked from doorway to doorway, talking with each other as if strolling down their neighborhood street, which wasn’t far away.

They talked of fear and uncertainty on this day last month, feelings that have lingered weeks after the latest attack on the Coptic community: The army’s killing of 27 people protesting the recent burning of a Coptic Christian center in Upper Egypt and the refusal of the ruling military council, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to be held accountable for its use of violence against civilians.

Related: The story of a 17-year-old Copt beaten to death by Muslim classmates

On Saturday, demonstrations against the anti-Coptic violence at Maspero were held across Egypt and at Egyptian embassies in America, Canada and Europe where many Copts have steadily migrated over several generations. On Friday, Christians and Muslims marched past the hospital where the wounded were treated and into Tahrir Square. The demonstrations reflect mounting fears in Egypt’s Coptic community and its Diaspora that after the pro-democracy uprising of earlier this year the predominantly Muslim Egyptian society seems as indifferent to the Christian minority’s concerns as ever.

In the dimly lit hallways of the hospital, answers were hard to find about the Oct. 9 killings at Maspero, the name of the government TV building around which the Copts demonstrated to draw attention to the attack on the Coptic center and what many Copts feel is a rising culture of intolerance. .

In the hospital ward here, reporters visiting with these Copts were told not to ask about "the accident." Hospital managers hovered by the doors. Yet when nurses left the room, patients whispered of conspiracies and expressed their fears. .

Moreed Khairollos, from the poor Cairo area of Imbaba, lay in bed. His wife said she still has a shirt with burn marks left from two bullets that were fired through his back.

“But they reported it as stabs. They’re protecting SCAF,” she said, referring to Egypt’s de facto ruling military council. “But no one is protecting us.”

Along the Nile, Copts’ anger has been renewed at a critical time for Egypt, so close to its first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak was kicked out. The Oct. 9 Maspero massacre struck the same discriminatory chords for Copts as did the fatal bombing of an Alexandria church in January and the burning of an Imbaba church in May. Though all of Egypt’s future is uncertain as it trundles toward democratic changes, Copts fear that their fate could be disastrous if sectarian violence continues.

“What happened was a tragedy, no doubt,” Gen. Mahmud Hegazy, a member of the military council, said in a rare TV interview. “But people should not point out that these are Coptic casualties. They are Egyptian casualties.”
Those “casualties” are a reminder to Copts that they are fighting for equality, but as some pro-democracy activists point out the military appears to be as brutal to Muslims as to Christians when it comes to putting down demonstrations.

Reportedly, all but one of the 27 people killed on Oct. 9 were Christian. And they weren’t the only people hurt that night. Along with the five Copts hospitalized on the third floor, a single Muslim patient, Ahmed Abdel Haleem, was recovering from being shot in the leg while he was trying to help protesters he saw while taking a walk.

His sister and mother sat in the corner of the room with the Koran and fresh bread, near the window that looked out on the Cairo cityscape of the crosses and the crescent. Since he was taken to the hospital, he has been visited by not only his Muslim family but by Christians whom he doesn’t even know.
“We’ve been brothers and friends throughout our lives,” Abdel Haleem said of Christians and Muslims, as the Islamic evening call to prayer blared into his room from the minaret’s speakers. “I’m glad that I did something good.”

Ahmed Haleem is the single Muslim patient at the Coptic hospital. He was taking a walk near his office when he heard gunfire that night at Maspero. When he saw bloody protestors, he says he ran to help them and was shot in the leg by the army. His mother and sister spend nearly all day in his room.
(Lauren E. Bohn/GlobalPost)

While he spoke softly, the organizer of the Maspero protest, Evon Mussad, rode into Haleem’s room in a wheelchair. She is an engaging powerhouse and Coptic community organizer who was hit in the back by the butt of a gun by an officer who called her an “infidel” at the protest. She introduced herself to Abdel Haleem and asked if he needed anything.

“Thank you,” she told him, referring to the risk of violence he took and the subsequent injuries he suffered to support the Copts in their protest.
Thousands joined in the October 9 march in a rare show of strength. After soldiers shot at and ran over Copts, which was captured on video and aired on satellite television stations, the hospital was flung into chaos. Some unconscious patients were initially left for dead in the morgue, which was built to hold three bodies at once. After it overflowed with corpses, the hospital decided to expand it so it can hold eight.

“Just in case anything might happen,” Sabr Atta, the overnight shift manager at the hospital, said outside the under-construction morgue one night as another call to prayer swept through the hospital’s dark outdoor corridors.
Some of the Copts brought to the hospital to be treated that night left almost immediately because they feared that they would be tracked down — by extremist Muslims, perhaps, or by soldiers. The demonstration in Cairo had confirmed Copts’ longstanding — and debilitating — fear: When they mobilize, they are struck down, even killed. In dozens of conversations, Copts blamed both extremist Muslims and Egypt’s ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which not only controls the country, but is at the helm of Egypt's transition.

The term ‘Maspero’ now refers to military abuse more than it does to the actual name for the TV building and the neighborhood around it. For Egypt’s Christians, ‘Maspero’ is a foreboding sign of the grim consequences of organizing.

Copts, followers of an Eastern Orthodox rite from the 4th century, are Egypt’s biggest religious minority. While there are no official census figures, it is estimated that Copts represent about 5 percent of Egypt’s population, or roughly 4 million people. For 1700 years they have resisted efforts to be converted to Islam, and on Jan. 25, they joined hands with Muslims, believing that a revolution that could topple a tyrant might also bring them the rights they deserve.
But now they fear that the revolution that swept from Tahrir Square to all corners of Egypt has passed them over.

Mussad, 53, struggles to stand, and she struggles to encourage her fellow Copts to stand up for their rights. Outside of the church, Copts have no formal structural organization. The Maspero protest was an anomaly, made possible by anger over the police’s inaction in a case in which a church burned, and fresh resentment against the army after soldiers broke up a previous sit-in. But when she was asked who the leader is for the Copts, Mussad just shrugged and pointed at herself flippantly.
She rallied Copts to walk from a busy intersection in Cairo’s largely Coptic Shubra district to Maspero. Since the gathering, no event has come close to rivaling the size and intensity of the Oct. 9 demonstration. Shopkeepers at Shubra Square say that while a few dozen protesters have showed up sporadically on a few days since Maspero, things are back to normal.
But in some places south of Cairo, religious tension is so thick that Muslims and Christians can’t even sit in the same room together.
Not far away, on the outskirts of Minya, a small town knows the rift between Christians and Muslims as no one else does. All 30,000 of Nazlet Ebeid’s residents are Copts, despite being within walking distance of a village where Muslims live, according to those who live off the sandy streets.
The men dress in faded blue jalabiya that match the faint, blue tattoos of crosses on their hands, which are covered in dirt from labor. They spend their days in the dry, desert heat, surrounded by posters and spray-painted images of the Virgin Mary gazing down at them serenely, on garages for auto shops and makeshift convenience stores alike. They say they could live with Muslims, but only if the government doesn’t interfere — which they say is sadly not the case now.

Children play outside the Maris Girgis church in the all-Christian village of Nezlet Ebeid in Minya, Upper Egypt.
(Lauren E. Bohn/GlobalPost)

Nazlet Ebeid’s residents say they are afraid, that they live every day with worry. “I have a feeling of, I might be next after Maspero,” said Eid Adlee, who was selling snacks.
The head of Nazlet Ebeid’s church is Father Yuhanna Bushra, a slow-walking, patient priest. Bushra denied any sort of tension between Christians and Muslims, and he claimed that reporters needed permission from higher, holier authorities to talk to anyone in the town. When he was asked what the residents think of the way that Egypt’s ruling council has handled religious tension, he ordered other staff members in the room not to answer and smiled coyly. “Can’t you see it? Everything is on television,” he said.
Down the street is Falajallah, a village where Christians are a majority, though some Muslims live there — and Muslims surround them. There, the Copts tell stories of Muslims shooting at a priest’s home and trying to burn his car. They say the Muslims call them “infidels” and charge that they have no place in Egypt. And during and after meals, at cafes, outside, wherever, the main topic of conversation — sometimes the only one — is fear of being attacked.
Their agitation has trickled down to the village’s children, even as they frolic in the sand and dirt in their soccer jerseys. They are scared after learning that a 17-year-old Coptic boy was beaten to death by two Muslims in nearby Mellawi. “I live in fear,” Mina Ashraf, a 14-year-old boy with a normally wide smile, said deliberately as his friends surrounded him.

Constructive ways to move ahead for the Copts remain elusive. The principal of Falajallah’s school throws his hands up and says that “we do not know what to do.” Mussad is trying in vain to unite potential Coptic leaders with Catholics and moderate Muslims.
“These days, they have nothing,” said Father Paul, a Catholic priest at St. Teresa church, right outside the Shubra square where the Maspero march began. “They are short on money, living on hopes and promises, promises that are never fulfilled.”
After General Hegazy was interviewed about the Maspero killings in the TV interview, a candidate for parliament in the Copt-heavy Shubra area, Mona Makram Ebeid, was asked if Copts’ questions were answered sufficiently. “I don’t represent Copts,” she replied. “I represent Egyptians.”

Maspero has surfaced as a scar on a post-revolution Egypt that was supposed to be better than Hosni Mubarak. At a time when the former president is almost universally hated, Copts say their religious protection was stronger during the ousted president’s regime. “Somehow, there was protection, but now, no security,” said Samia Ibrahim, the aunt of the 17-year-old boy killed in Mellawi. Many Copts were initially reluctant to take part in Egypt's uprising, fearing marginalization as Islam became more prevalent. Just how safe Copts were under Mubarak is an open question, given the sectarian violence and widespread suspicion among Christians that his regime had acted as a hedge against challenges to its rule.

Fearful Copts share their stories all around Cairo and Upper Egypt. Hani Sameer, a teacher, brought bullets to church in Abbesiya as evidence that the military fired on him at the Maspero protest. In the poor Imbaba district of Cairo, Father Timmy Salwas slept at his cathedral to protect it from Islamic extremists who purportedly threatened to attack for 30 days. Samuel Gaber, a guard at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the same district, said that after Muslims set fire to his house of worship in March, killing one of the other guards there, he doesn’t open the door for anyone after 9 p.m.

Though the violence against Copts hasn’t prompted a desire to protest en masse as Egyptians did in January, it has strengthened their faith. Women at the Church of the Virgin Mary, sitting in pews that were pushed against each other to make room for construction needed after the fire, said they’ve doubled the number of times they come to pray. And Mussad, recalling the Maspero protest she organized, said her devotion to God is reinforced “when a person calls me an infidel.”
Naturally, Muslims narrate a different story about their relationship with Copts. “There is a huge difference between not accepting his religion and attacking their churches,” said Sheikh Ali Nasser, a prominent Muslim leader. “For me, they are infidels, and for them, I am an infidel. However, the word ‘infidel’ does not mean that I should kill them or attack their churches.”

A victim of Maspero lies in bed at the Coptic hospital. He and his brother wait to hear the doctor's latest prognosis.
(Lauren E. Bohn/GlobalPost)

Ali denied that Copts can prove that extremist Muslims, or Salafis, are behind the attacks on churches. “The real answer to why the Christians are afraid of Muslims is not with me but with those who terrify them from the Muslims,” he said, alluding to the Coptic church.
“Both Christians and Muslims are discriminated against,” said Ahmed Moghrabi, a 27-year-old health and safety officer. “But Maspero was a reflex and response from the military, who were protecting the place since this was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Whoever started the clashes from the other side, whether they're Copts or not, it's normal for the military to react, since this country is in a time of distress. It's normal for someone to stop it. Because if they don't stop, the country will fall apart.”
One of the Copts who was clipped by a military vehicle at Maspero is Hana Nedhi Saman, a 20-year-old who was taken to the morgue after the protest and left for dead. Saman, who took a bus from the Upper Egypt town of Sohag to demonstrate, was later realized to be alive, and he became conscious in the Coptic hospital. After his parents saw his bloody body on TV that same night, they sped to Cairo to see him. At the same time, a mob tried to break into the hospital to attack the Copts who were being treated, but it was stopped.
Bandaged on his arm and showing scabs filled with puss over deep gashes in his arm and leg, Saman said he wasn’t afraid to be killed that night. “Even if the people who didn’t get in the first time got in the second time, I would have died a martyr,” he said quietly, shortly after being released from the hospital’s intensive care unit.
A Coptic neuropsychiatrist in downtown Cairo, Dr. Milad Khalifa, says his Coptic patients have expressed that recent violence against them proves that they are an unequal minority. “Some of them feel that they are isolated,” he said. “They do not know the future ... They feel pain.”
On the first Sunday after the Maspero protest, Egypt’s Coptic pope was making a surprise visit behind closed doors at the sprawling church plaza in Abbesiya. Copts lingered after services there to commiserate about the deaths, still fresh in their mind. As if waiting for someone to talk to, groups of five or six sprang to life to talk to reporters about the massacre and religious discrimination, at times yelling in the normally peaceful outdoor courtyard. They rolled up their sleeves, turned their palms upward and held out their wrists proudly, letting the faint, blue crosses tattooed above their veins face the bright sky.
“We feel as if we have no rights here,” said Emad Haleem, a 25-year-old accountant. Sameer, the teacher clutching bullets in his hand, said he hates the army. He was asked if he had any hope for Copts getting justice.
He said only, “Hope is in God.”
This report was part of the ”Special Report” produced by the GlobalPost-Open Hands Initiative fellowship. Reporting assistance was provided by GlobalPost reporting fellows Lauren E. Bohn and Omnia Al Desoukie.
This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.