Sunday, July 14, 2013

'Muslim extremists kill our priests, burn our churches and kidnap our women'

How Egypt’s Arab Spring dream descended into a nightmare of religious hatred

  • Mail on Sunday correspondent in Cairo reveals hate acts against Christians
  • Extremists have forced many families into hiding or to seek asylum overseas
Father Youssef Souby Zaky left his church
in northern Sinai after it was ransacked
and torched.

The mob converging on a church on the outskirts of Cairo were armed only with sticks and stones.

But their frenzied attack on a lone, elderly Coptic priest was merciless.  Father Matthew Awad had refused to reveal the whereabouts of a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity. For this offence, he was assaulted, suffered death threats and barely escaped with his life.

Today, he is in hiding. His entire family fear for their safety. Matthew’s son, shop owner Marco Awad, cannot set foot in public after he was arrested and tortured by Egyptian police officers sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Two of his three young children are with him in a safe house while his sister, wife and four month-old-son have fled Egypt to Britain and are now staying in Brighton.

Marco, who refused to be photographed because of the risk to his life, told The Mail on Sunday from a monastery in the desert: ‘Muslim fundamentalists are killing our priests, kidnapping our women and burning our churches. Since the 2011 revolution, Coptics like me have lived in fear of our lives. I’m being forced to live apart from my family because of my faith.’

The minority Christian group are reeling after a frightening rise in religiously-motivated attacks. Last Thursday, the decapitated body of church elder Magdy Lamay Habib, 59, was found in a graveyard, six days after he was kidnapped by extremists in northern Sanai.

And priest Father Mina Aboud Sharobeel, 39, was shot dead when Islamic gunmen opened fire as he drove home from a weekly grocery shop at a market in the town of El Arish, near the Gaza border.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are believed to have launched the attacks because they blame Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II for backing the military’s removal of President Mohammed Morsi from power on July 3.

Christians are especially vulnerable in Sinai, where much of the population is armed and the local economy hinges on the smuggling of weapons, drugs and people.

Security officials believe a local branch of Jabhat al-Nusra, the feared Islamist group that is fighting against the Syrian government, may also be operating in Sinai. As are Jihadist groups, including affiliates of Al Qaeda.

Christians saw discrimination against them escalate during Morsi’s drive for an Islamic state. Around 200,000 are said to have left for new lives in Europe, America and Canada over the past year.

Father Youssef Souby Zaky, a friend of the slain priest, reluctantly left his church in Rafa, northern Sinai, after it was ransacked and torched. He says: ‘Every Christian family abandoned the town because it was unsafe for us to live there.

‘Several churches were vandalised and set alight, threats made against our families and four priests were kidnapped in the region – three were released after ransoms were paid, but sadly one was slaughtered.

‘These hate crimes have been fuelled by extremists trying to drive us out of Sinai, perhaps even out of Egypt. My fear is that long-term enmity will be established and our national unity will crumble to dust.’
The Awad family became targets after the family of a Muslim woman objected to her conversion to Christianity last July.

‘Extremists led the attack against my father but he managed to escape,’ Marco says. ‘They threatened to kill my sister Feeby and we were forced to flee our homes.’

Rania Awad (left) and her baby son fled
to Britain for safety after her husband
was persecuted for his faith
He took his wife Rania and their children – son David, ten, and daughter Karma, aged six – to live with the in-laws. ‘Then, four months ago, I was taken from my shop by two policemen, who said my business permit was not in order.

‘I was locked in a cell and beaten every day. They kept asking where my father and sister had gone. But my wife had been looking for me and she contacted the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, who spoke to the right people and I was eventually freed. I was taken unconscious in a car and dumped in the middle of the countryside.’

Dr Naguib Gobraiel, head of the Human Rights Federation and also a Christian, describes what’s happening as ethnic cleansing. ‘It’s a pogrom,’ he claims. ‘I have three sons in their late 20s and they all emigrated with their families since Morsi took power. I’ve been threatened with death and my office burned three times.’

The former judge saw a big increase in false allegations made against Christians, especially teachers, after the Brotherhood were voted into power in the country’s first democratic elections a year ago.
Criminalising blasphemy was enshrined in a controversial Islamist-backed constitution passed by Mr Morsi soon after he became president. Liberal Muslim writers and activists have since been accused of insulting Islam.

But it is the country’s minority Christians – about ten per cent of the population – who bear the brunt of prosecutions and imprisonment for blasphemy.

Dr Gobraiel represented 18 of them. ‘Seventeen received three to six years in prison,’ he says. ‘They went to appeals courts, hoping for retrials or lighter sentences. But the system is biased.’

His most notorious case involved Dimyana Abdel-Nour, a woman teacher in the southern tourist city of Luxor.

The shy 24-year old was arrested and charged with insulting Islam during her classes, after three parents claimed she had expressed disgust for the religion to their ten-year-old daughters.

She spent a week in jail before being bailed for £2,000 in May and is now hiding in a church outside the city. ‘She is in a very bad way and is being protected by one of our priests,’ says Dr Gobraiel.

‘The charges are spurious, yet she was arrested and kept in custody. It was a very shocking experience and her father says she suffered a nervous breakdown.’

Meanwhile, a tense stand-off between pro-Morsi supporters and the military continues in the holy month of Ramadan – fasting has dampened any appetite for fighting.

Television producer Maha Reda believes the Brotherhood hierarchy know they have lost the battle to hold on to power – but also claims that Egypt is not ready to be a functioning democracy: ‘The army is the only solid institution that can hold our society together and stop us drifting into more chaos.’

Marco Awad hopes that is the case – but is too afraid to take a chance with his family’s safety. ‘I never thought of leaving my country but I don’t feel safe here any more,’ he says.

‘I want my children to live somewhere where being a Christian does not put a target on their backs.’