Ensure Effective Investigation, Amend Discriminatory Laws
April 10, 2013

“President Mohamed Morsy needs to acknowledge the deep and longstanding problem of sectarian violence in Egypt and take decisive steps to address it before it escalates further.”

Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director

(New York) – Egyptian authorities should bring to justice those responsible for the sectarian violence that left five Christians and one Muslim dead on April 5, 2013, in the town of Khosus, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also investigate police failure to intervene effectively to prevent an escalation of violence outside the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo on April 7, after a funeral service for the Christians killed at Khosus.

Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians, Egypt’s largest religious minority, are rarely properly investigated and punished.

“President Mohamed Morsy needs to acknowledge the deep and longstanding problem of sectarian violence in Egypt and take decisive steps to address it before it escalates further,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “For years people have been getting away with sectarian murder and he should break that cycle of impunity. Then he should reform laws that discriminate against Christians’ right to worship.”

Incidents of sectarian violence between members of Muslim and Christian communities have occurred with increasing frequency and intensity, in particular since 2008, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks such attacks. At least five incidents of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims have taken place since Morsy came to power in June 2012. However, prosecutors initiated investigations in only one case, in Dahshour, south of Cairo, in July 2012, and even these investigations did not lead to any prosecutions. Since Morsy became Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the authorities have taken no steps to investigate serious incidents of sectarian violence committed under the preceding military government, or during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian law discriminates against Christians by prohibiting construction of churches without a presidential decree, a requirement which is not applied to other religions and their places of worship. This has long been a source of tension between Christian and Muslim communities. A failed attempt to draft a unified law on places of worship, which would apply to mosques and churches equally, took place after a particularly serious bout of violence at Imbaba in May 2011. Article 43 of Egypt’s new constitution, which took effect in December 2012, explicitly recognizes the right of Christians to have their own places of worship, but the government has yet to repeal the earlier discriminatory law. The government should ensure that the Shura council prioritizes changing the law to remove this obstacle to Christians’ right to worship, Human Rights Watch said.

Violence in Khosus between Muslim and Christian Families

It is unclear what sparked the sectarian violence that broke out in the town of Khosus, in Qalyubia, north of Cairo, on the evening of April 5. According to the French news agency Agence France Presse, citing an Egyptian security source, Muslim residents became outraged after people they believed to be Christian children sprayed a swastika onto the wall of a religious institute affiliated to Al Azhar. Some local residents claim that a fight between Christian children playing soccer and a Muslim man and his sister escalated after their families became involved, followed by other members of their two communities.

The ensuing violence raged for several hours, during which protagonists set fire to buildings and shops and engaged in violent clashes leading to the deaths of one Muslim and five Christians. An April 8 statement by the Egyptian Presidency stated that “security forces contained the situation and deployed forces throughout the city to prevent further clashes.” However witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the police response was slow and ineffective.

The priest of the Margirgis Church in Khosus Sorial Younan told the Egyptian daily Tahrir that the regular police arrived two hours after the clashes began, and that five hours elapsed before the arrival of the Central Security Forces (CSF), the riot police. Ishak Ibrahim, religious freedom researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the police had arrived at least two hours late.

Boules Fakhry, who owns a shop selling alabaster wares in Khosus, told Human Rights Watch what he witnessed on April 5:

I reached the area around the church at around 6 p.m., I heard the cleric of the mosque calling out from the loudspeaker ‘Kill all the infidels,’ meaning the Christians. After 9 p.m., things started to get bad. Most of the area behind the church was very dark, but we heard gunshots. The CSF came really late, very few of them, with sticks and shields. They were useless, they were standing far away from the church, like 200 meters away.

Mina Fathy, a resident of Khosus, told Human Rights Watch that he had arrived at the [Margirgis] church at around 9:30 p.m.:

I heard the cleric from the neighboring mosque asking everyone to take their weapons and attack the church. At 11:45pm I was standing with some friends on top of one of the fences and we saw buildings set on fire. It was really dark where I was, but I saw the houses igniting. They torched a tailor shop, a nursery, and they also torched a Protestant church three blocks away from St. George church. They also set some cars on fire. The police didn’t show up until late, three CSF trucks came, doing absolutely nothing, and things had calmed down already. They didn’t say anything. They were standing 50-100 meters away from the church.

Funeral at Cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo

Further sectarian violence broke out on April 7 outside St. Mark’s, the Coptic cathedral in Abbasiya in Cairo, during a funeral procession for the four Christians killed at Khosus. Again, it is unclear what sparked the clashes but witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch described how for the rest of the day, hundreds of men within and outside the cathedral threw stones and Molotov cocktails and fired birdshot and, in a few cases, handguns at each other.

The presidency statement claimed that “the Ministry of Interior immediately intensified its presence in the area to prevent the recurrence of clashes.” However, eyewitness accounts and video footage show that the police failed to effectively intervene to prevent further escalation, and stood by allowing private citizens to attack people on the grounds of the cathedral. They directed tear gas solely at the people on the cathedral walls.Video footage taken by the Egyptian daily Al Masry al Youm shows members of the riot police failing to take any action against men in plainclothes standing next to them and throwing stones towards the cathedral. In some footage, the men who were throwing stones can be seen apparently directing the riot police to shoot tear gas at the cathedral walls, with the riot police complying. 

Journalist Alastair Beach, a reporter for the Independent, told Human Rights Watch that he saw a young man carrying a handgun climb onto a roof and open fire in the direction of the cathedral in full view of some 30 CSF officers. They made no effort to stop or arrest him. He said he also saw riot police shoot tear gas into the cathedral compound.

Mina Thabet, a mourner, told Human Rights Watch that he arrived at the cathedral at mid-day, after the start of the funeral service, and was walking with those carrying the caskets to the funeral cars. He continued:

We closed the Cathedral’s gates, but some of the men throwing stones started climbing the walls and attacking us from the roofs of the surrounding buildings. This situation lasted for an hour or so before the police came. The CSF were standing in front of the cathedral, and a few minutes later they were shooting teargas inside of the cathedral, all the way to the Papal compound and the church auditorium. Kids and women were suffocating, I passed out twice myself. I saw people injured with pellets and glass.  

Following this further violence, the Egyptian presidency said in a statement on April 8 that Morsy had ordered “an immediate investigation into the incidents to hold those who are found to be involved accountable, emphasizing that the results of investigations be publicized as soon as they come out.” On April 9, Walid Emad, head of the Wayli prosecution office, told al-Ahram newspaper that the prosecution was investigating the violence at Abbasiya but that the police had not arrested anyone yet.

“The police need to develop the ability to intervene impartially and effectively in sectarian attacks to protect lives and prevent a further escalation of violence,” Houry said. “The police should have a different image than standing idly by while men throw stones at the cathedral.”

Government Response

The first reaction by Morsy was an April 7 statement in which he ordered an investigation and then urged Egyptians not to concern themselves with “matters that harm the safety and security of the country and threaten national unity”, adding that “everyone is a partner in this nation.” The National Council for Human Rights blamed “malicious hands” for the violence while the ruling Freedom and Justice party accused “dubious parties determined to cause discord and contention among citizens” of “fabricating confrontations to provoke religious sentiments, leading to widespread sectarian strife designed to drag the country into chaos that would benefit the enemies of Egypt and their associates, the corrupt criminals.”

“The legacy of sectarian violence from the Mubarak era and the climate that protects aggressors on both sides is promoting a serious and growing problem between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian communities,” Houry said. “President Morsy should tackle this by improving security measures and prosecuting those responsible, not try to explain it away as the product of conspiracy, unless we are to see more and more violence of the sort experienced at Khosus.”

Under Mubarak, sectarian violence was a recurrent phenomenon, which continued under the military council that replaced him in 2011. At least 12 incidents of serious sectarian violence occurred during the 17 months of military government, which left numerous homes and shops destroyed, and at least 25 people dead. Only two cases resulted in any prosecutions, but prosecutors referred those two cases to the then-existing Emergency State Security Courts, which were notorious for failing to meet minimum due process standards and whose verdicts cannot be appealed. Other cases were handled with so-called reconciliation meetings, which did not result in justice, Human Rights Watch said.

Incidents of sectarian violence between Coptic and Muslim individuals continued throughout 2012, with no new prosecutions or serious investigations except for the investigation into the July 2012 sectarian violence in Dahshour, Giza. There, prosecutors ordered the detention of nine suspects whom they later released without charge. In February 2012, police and local religious and political leaders ordered the eviction of eight Christian families after Muslim residents sacked homes and shops of Christian residents in the village of Sharbat, near Alexandria. The eviction was overturned two weeks later after a visit of parliamentarians to the area, but by the end of the year police had still failed to arrest anyone for the violence despite a police report identifying suspects.

“The authorities urgently need to get to the bottom of the violence at Khosus and at the subsequent funerals, and bring all those responsible to justice, promptly and fairly,” Houry said. “President Morsy should ask his police chief why the police failed to uphold the law and protect those under attack, and insist the chief take steps to ensure that the police do their job in future.”