By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher
On Sunday I attended the Cairo funeral of four Coptic Christians killed on Friday night in Khousous, a small town north of the city.
I had been planning to travel to Khousous to find out more about the sectarian violence which led to the deaths there. Instead, I found myself caught up in more violence at the funeral itself – with mourners on one side, and unknown assailants and, later, security forces on the other.
Before the clashes erupted, feelings of grief, anger and injustice were palpable inside Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, which was filled with mourners. Tears, prayers and wailing were drowned out by chants against the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, and vows to avenge the dead.
Shortly after the caskets and funeral procession made their way out of the cathedral, violence broke out nearby between some of the mourners and assailants reported to be residents of the area. The small number of security forces present when I entered the cathedral about two hours earlier were no longer to be seen. Confusion reigned inside the cathedral, with hundreds of people including priests, the elderly and children in attendance. A rumor spread about a mourner killed outside, increasing tensions further. Attempts to restore calm and halt the violence were not heeded by some of the youth, as stones and fireworks kept flying just outside the main entrance.
The violence was temporarily contained as riot police arrived at the main entrance of the cathedral. But the situation quickly degenerated as some of the mourners, exasperated with what they saw as the failure of the authorities to protect them, started throwing rocks at the security forces. Security forces responded with heavy teargas, which filled the cathedral grounds, nearly creating a stampede inside with mourners fleeing deeper into the cathedral compound to seek shelter. When the teargas settled a bit, I exited through the back door of the cathedral. Some mourners chose to stay, saying that they wanted to protect the cathedral from further attacks. Violence re-erupted again later in the day.
The latest media reports quoting Ministry of Health officials have said two people died and at least 89 were injured in the violence. A journalist from the Shorouq online portal is among the injured.
The authorities condemned the violence in Khousous and at the cathedral – a welcome step, but not nearly enough. Time and time again, the Egyptian authorities have failed to protect Coptic Christians from sectarian violence and favored “reconciliation” over prosecution of offenders.
For decades, the Egyptian authorities have repeatedly failed to protect Coptic Christians and churches from attack. Under Hosni Mubarak, at least 15 major attacks on Copts were documented, and the situation didn’t improve under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which ruled the country between the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and the election of President Mohamed Morsi.
In 2013, under Mohamed Morsi’s rule, Coptic Christian activists reported at least six attacks on Churches or affiliated buildings, in the Governorates of Aswan, Beni Suef, Cairo, and Fayoum. To date, despite promises from President Morsi, no adequate investigations have been conducted, no measures put in place to avoid further violence, and nobody has been punished.
This pattern of inaction contributes to the sense of injustice, discrimination and vulnerability felt by Christians in Egypt, and leads perpetrators to believe that they can carry on attacking Christians and get away with it.
These failures also violate Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law to effectively protect members of minorities from abuses, and to bring perpetrators to justice.
There are numerous versions about what sparked the tragic sectarian violence in Khousous, which led to the deaths of four local Christians and one Muslim by gunshots. The only way to avoid repetition of similar violence is to ensure investigations into the violence in Khousous and the Saint Mark’s Cathedral are prompt, thorough, independent and impartial and that those responsible, regardless of their faith and affiliation, are brought to justice. The mere promise by Mohamed Morsi of an investigation will not be enough and Egyptians will be looking to see whether he upholds this promise unlike his earlier one to appoint a Coptic vice-president.
The authorities must recognize that ignoring this latest round of violence will only give rise to more anger and polarization among the religious communities in Egypt. When some mourners brought in a member of the riot police inside the cathedral grounds, others intervened to protect him shouting that he must not be ill-treated regardless of whether he was a Christian or a Muslim. Voices like these risk becoming silenced, if the authorities fail yet again to protect religious minorities from violence.