The homes of several Coptic Christians in the Beni Suef village of Beni Menin were set ablaze by Muslim villagers on Monday night in the latest incident of sectarian violence, according to a member of the village who spoke to Mada Masr.
Monday’s violence was preceded by attacks on a church building used for worship in the village, as well as homes and shops owned by Copts, which took place on April 14, the source added.
The Fashn Prosecution, which has jurisdiction over the region in which the village resides, issued four-day detention orders on Monday for 20 people and arrest warrants for 10 others in connection to the April 14 events, according to the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper. The 20 people that are currently in custody include nine Coptic Christians and 11 Muslims, who have been charged with illegal assembly and disrupting public peace, according to Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Security forces also arrested five Copts during the attacks that took place on Monday, according to a Coptic villager, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity and fled Beni Menin upon hearing that a warrant had been issued for his arrest on charges of inciting violence against Muslims. All of the Coptic men from the village have taken refuge in neighboring villages, with only a number of women and children remaining in Beni Menin, the source added.
Another Coptic villager who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity stated that investigation authorities have accused the five Copts arrested on Monday with setting their own houses on fire. However, he told Mada Masr that the Coptic men had been arrested while attempting to extinguish the fires, which were set off when someone threw Molotov cocktails at their residences.
A Muslim villager denied stories of Monday’s attacks, stating that they had been fabricated.
The conflict began over the legal status of the church building, an issue that has often served as a tinderbox for sectarian strife. On April 11, the first Coptic source was summoned to the Fashn Police Station, where police officer Mohamed Rabea threatened to report him for conducting prayers in the church building “without a permit.” The source told Mada Masr that Copts in the village have used the building to pray for a decade.
“The officer asked Coptic villagers to coordinate with the National Security Agency and to stop holding prayers in the building,” the source said. On April 12, security forces arrested Magdy Roushdy Labib, the son of the previous owner of the church building, who sold it in 2010 to Bishop Stephanous of Biba and Fashn, the source added. “The sale was registered in court for the purpose of holding prayers in the building.”
According to the Coptic villager, a Fashn priest subsequently submitted documents to confirm the building’s status as a site of worship in 2017, as part of a survey of churches and church buildings in Fashn that was conducted after the issuance of the church building law on September 28, 2016.
Ibrahim attributes the frequent occurrence of these sectarian events to this very same law. Out of 3,500 applications submitted by churches to legalize their status, only 219 churches and affiliated buildings have been approved by the government committee responsible for reviewing these applications since the issuance of the new law in 2016. The committee, which stopped receiving new applications in September 2017, confirmed the status of 53 church buildings in March of this year, as well as an additional 166 on Monday.
“A police officer at the station asked the son of the previous owner to sign an eviction notice,” the Coptic villager stated. When he refused, because he did not legally have the right to do so, the police officer issued a cease and desist order on grounds of ‘inciting religious discontent.’ Last Friday [April 13], officials attended the inauguration of a mosque in the village. The officials informed Coptic residents that there was no problem holding prayers in the church. However, churchgoers were surprised when, on [April 14] during a church service, they received a phone call warning them of an attack on the church. They evacuated the building, but matters escalated, resulting in attacks on several Coptic-owned homes and shops.
The attacks were not limited to the church building and its immediate vicinity, the Coptic villager stated.
“Although I live a kilometer away from the church, they attacked my house with bricks and Molotov cocktails and broke the windows. My children and I were terrified, and my daughter was hit in the head by a brick. I couldn’t even leave the house to take her to the local hospital,” he said. “The police arrived three hours after the clashes and arrested a number of Muslims and Copts in the village.”
The source who had fled from the village said he had left with one of his brothers, while another had been arrested. He said, “I don’t know where we can go. Don’t we have the right to pray? Aren’t we Egyptians? Why should I be attacked and have to run away and leave my work and home just because I pray and say the name of the Lord?”
Mada Masr was unable to reach the Fashn archbishopric responsible for the church in question for official comment.
The Muslim villager presents a different account of the events, however. Security sources informed Muslim villagers on April 12 of the existence of a church that had previously been unknown and was not licensed, the source told Mada Masr.
Village elders intervened to prevent the situation from escalating, the Muslim village said, adding that, on April 13, Copts and Muslims in the village participated in the inauguration of a local mosque. On April 14, a group of children began fighting in front of Coptic homes, the source stated.
“They were messing around and we sprayed water on them. They left,” he said, adding that a Coptic villager fired shots into the air from a rooftop, which provoked neighboring residents and gave rise to fighting.
The Muslim source said that he intervened to protect the homes of his Coptic neighbors during the attacks out of a sense of duty. He feels the situation was blown out of proportion, however, since Copts and Muslim in the village have always lived in peace and harmony.
An estimated 200 to 250 Coptic Christians live in Beni Menin, according to Ibrahim, which he put as a relatively low figure. Although this was the first attack of its kind in the village, there have been similar incidents, with the most recent occurring earlier in April, in a village in the governorate of Qena.
The houses attacked also included one owned by a Muslim villager, according to the second Coptic source, who added that the Muslim man was forced to sign a police report at the station accusing Copts of arson.
While the causes of sectarian violence in Upper Egypt are complex, Ibrahim asserted that the legislation that regulates church legalization plays an important part. He described the law as “discriminatory,” saying it increases sectarian tension by implying that the construction of churches is a problem, especially in villages where Copts are a minority, as they are in Beni Menin.
The researcher added that the state wished to continue controlling churches and violating the rights of individuals to worship freely and did not take necessary measures to stem violent and discriminatory discourse or address those found to be inciting sectarian violence.
According to a report in November 2017, from the time the new church building law was issued until October 2017, EIPR recorded 20 incidents of attacks or sectarian tension linked to the practice of religious rites, with the governorate of Minya witnessing nine incidences, followed by Beni Suef with five incidences, and Sohag with three, Cairo with two and Alexandria with one.