Father Samaan Shehata tried to propel himself forward with all the strength he could summon, after a cleanly shaven young man in a galabeya with a sword stabbed him on October 12. He eventually fell, as Ahmed Saeed, the young man, chased him through the rubble until they reached a steel warehouse where the priest had tried to take refuge, and Saeed stabbed him multiple times until he died.
Forty-year-old Shehata is the priest of a village church in Beni Suef. He was visiting Salam City with another priest to collect donations for the poor in Upper Egypt. Priests regularly come in groups from Upper Egypt to collect donations from a number of Christian residents in the area.
Fights are not uncommon in the neighborhood, but they have never escalated to murder before, particularly as there is a Central Security Forces camp and a detention center for minors nearby. The area is crowded, as it is situated below Cairo’s busy ring road.
“I arrived 15 minutes after the incident,” says Ayman Fathy, the owner of the steel warehouse. “I was away, and a client called to tell me there was a fight. A minute later he told me someone had been killed, so I came to see what had happened. People were gathering and a man took Fathy aside to tell him the young man had thrown the sheath of the sword on the floor, which Fathy and the others took to the Central Security Forces headquarters,” he recounts. When Saeed was arrested, he had the actual sword on him.
The incident is with the prosecution now, Fathy says, tired after four days of investigations, security forces and journalists. “For a while, anyone killing Christians in Egypt has been labelled ‘crazy.’ No one has been imprisoned or sentenced to death. This boy, Ahmed, caused problems before in the village church,” he adds.
Saeed was reportedly referred to criminal court, despite the initial notes from the investigation indicating that the incident was not premeditated. The notes claim the young man had a knife on him in order to fight with a juice seller who had fired him, and that he attacked the priest on the spur of the moment when he passed by, based on his belief in “purifying the earth from infidels,” according to Fathy.
“Why is it that anyone who kills Christians is crazy? The person who killed two Christians in a train was crazy. We got used to this, and are expecting [Saeed] will soon be released too,” says 40-year-old Ihab Ishaq, from his house in Houd Dawoud in Salam City, where Saeed is also from.
Houd Dawoud is a 70-meter street lined with 12 houses made of unpainted red bricks, nine of which are owned by Christians and three by Muslims, including Saeed’s father.
“We don’t want to be unfair to anyone, but Ahmed Saeed is not crazy, he’s a religious extremist,” continues Ishaq, who owns three of the nine houses belonging to Christians. “Otherwise, why would he only target Christians? And why would he have become ‘mad’ in the last two years when he became more religious?” he asks.
A few women sit on their doorsteps in Houd Dawoud, expecting visits from police and journalists. One of them, Um Milad, interrupts Ishaq in tears. “We saw a sheikh online saying those who kill Christians should be prosecuted and not sentenced to death, even before the priest’s blood had cooled, because those who kill Christians are better than us. But, if a Christian does something, he is executed, his house burned and his family displaced.”
As she comforts her toddler, she adds, “What did the dead priest do wrong? Christians have always had no rights. We are worried about our children. Why was Saeed’s father released? He brought his son up this way and is more of a terrorist than his son. Why did he come out to stir up trouble? And why is he going around telling tales of his heroic son. No one can touch him.”
Saeed’s father and other family members were detained for three days after the incident took place, and then released.
Several villagers Mada Masr spoke to agree on Saeed’s sudden religiosity. He also had a troubled relationship with his family, and was accused of beating and injuring his father and setting fire to the house earlier this year, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry.
Houses in Hout Dawoud are in close proximity to one another, meaning neighbors are often well aware of “private” matters. Villagers recount Saeed reciting the Quran loudly in the house for the last six months.
“His voice is nice. I used to go out onto the balcony to smoke and would hear him sing and think it was a recording,” Ishaq says.
Saeed’s aggression towards Christians is not dissimilar to that of his father’s neighbors say. “Three years ago there was a fire in the house after Saeed’s sister left a gas canister on. Her father went to the mosque the next day and said he was surrounded by Christians in Houd Dawoud who want to rape his daughter and wife, such that they can’t leave the house,” Ishaq recounts. “Some of those who knew him just let him talk, but others decided to check the neighborhood. All of a sudden, the street was filled with people. When I asked what they wanted, they told me what Saeed said in the mosque. What he said could have caused a massacre in minutes,” Ishaq continues, adding that the concerned Muslims then met with an elder in the neighborhood, who resolved the issue and asked them to leave.
Saeed’s father used to stop children on their way back from church and say, “You are multiplying, may God destroy your houses and burn you all. You have filled our neighborhood with filth,” Um Milad says, recounting a time when he vandalized the shop fronts of Kirollos and Samuel, a Christian shop owner and electrician.
It’s better not to react to these provocations, Ishaq says. “I am raising my children and earning a living. I don’t have time for this bullshit. We are not fearful, but if the situation worsens, it is Christians that will be harmed.”
He wonders about what he should do next. “Do we wait until they come back and kill our children? Once the police stop coming, they will be back. We have gospel verses urging us to love our enemies, but we can’t put up with this any more.”
Member of Parliament Khaled Abdel Aziz Fahmy, a representative for the Free Egyptians Party, said: “The death of Father Samaan Shehata is a simple and ordinary matter that happens everywhere in the world. Making a big deal out of it is a conspiracy. Christians of Egypt support the state and know there is a conspiracy against it.”
Meanwhile, Mariam, Shehata’s wife, started screaming “Enough Sisi, enough,” during a television appearance before she lost consciousness. “This can’t continue,” Saleeb, Mariam’s father, said on the same tv show. “We have a martyr, but the situation can’t continue. As priests, we need to feel that we live in a country where there is safety and stability, and to feel we exist as humans, as Egyptians.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church, meanwhile, issued a brief statement calling the event “unfortunate.”