Update: On June 13, 2015, an Egyptian court sentenced 23 people to 14 years in prison for the fatal lynching of four Shia men in the village of Abu Musallim. The court acquitted eight other defendants.
(New York) – The lynching of four Shia by a mob apparently led by Salafi sheikhs in the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo on June 23, 2013, came after months of anti-Shia hate speech at times involving the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, Human Rights Watch said today. The episode shows that the government needs to recognize that Shia in Egypt are at risk and to take protective measure to ensure their protection and equal rights.
The investigation ordered by President Mohamed Morsy needs to look into the police failure over a period of three hours to intervene to halt the mob attack on a house where a group of Shia had gathered for a religious feast. The investigation also should address the role played by Salafi sheikhs against Shia families in Abu Musallim, Human Rights Watch said. Morsy should state unequivocally that Shia in Egypt have the right to practice their religious beliefs without fear and intimidation, something he has failed to do, Human Rights Watch said.
“The brutal sectarian lynching of four Shia comes after two years of hate speech against the minority religious group, which the Muslim Brotherhood condoned and at times participated in,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This horrific incident in Abu Musallim shows that Shia can’t even gather in the privacy of their homes to celebrate and heightens fear of persecution among all religious minorities in Egypt.”
The anti-Shia hate speech by Salafis, who consider Shia Muslims heretics, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been going on for two years, Human Rights Watch said. Muslim Brotherhood members and officials at Al Azhar, Egypt’s main center of Islamic learning and authority, have publicly called for an end to the spread of Shiism in Egypt.
Human Rights Watch visited the village of Abu Musallim in the governorate of Giza and spoke to three witnesses, including one man who was in the house when it was attacked. Their accounts were supported by video footage of the events on June 23, when 24 Shia residents gathered in a home to celebrate a religious feast, the birth of the Imam Mohammed ibn Hassan al-Mahdi, the twelfth and last imam of Shia Islam. Police later said that on the previous Friday sheikhs from local mosques called for the Shia to be removed from the village.
Some time after 3 p.m., a crowd of over 1,000 people gathered and two Salafi sheikhs were seen making phone calls and apparently directing people. The crowd began hurling stones and Molotov cocktails into the house. Four of the men inside, including the Shia religious leader Sheikh Hassan Shehata, left the house during the attack to protect those who remained inside, including women and children. The crowd attacked, beat, stabbed and lynched the four men. Video footage shows their bloodied lifeless bodies being kicked on the ground and then dragged through the streets.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that from the outset three vans of riot police who had been dispatched were stationed nearby but that they failed to intervene to disperse the mob.
The official response to the killings falls far short of what is needed to protect Shia in Egypt from future attack and protect their right to religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said. In a statement issued on June 24, the president’s office condemned the killing and ordered an investigation but failed to mention the fact that the victims were Shia targeted on the basis of their religious beliefs.
As of June 26, police had arrested eight people in connection with the incident. Video footage obtained by newspapers shows clearly the faces of dozens of men involved in the lynching. There has been no announcement of an investigation of the police failure to protect the Shia residents and neither the president nor the prime minister have yet affirmed the right of Shia to religious freedom in Egypt or addressed measures for their protection in the future.
There are no reliable statistics on Egypt’s Shia population. The 2012 US State Department report on religious freedom estimates Egypt’s Shia population to be less than 1 percent, which would be fewer than 830,000.
During the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, security officials arbitrarily arrested and detained Shia under the emergency law that was in effect for decades solely because of their religious beliefs. Since the 2011 uprising, police have arrested Shia in Cairo and prevented them from celebrating Ashoura, a Shia day of mourning marking the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed. In July 2012 a criminal court sentenced Mohamed Asfour, a Shia, to prison on charges of defaming Islam entirely on the basis of his Shia beliefs.
The June 23 attack in Abu Musallim did not take place in isolation, Human Rights Watch said. For the past two years Salafi political and religious leaders, members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and Al Azhar have publicly denounced Shia practices, organized conferences “against Shi’ism” and said that they are determined to halt the spread of Shi’ism in Egypt.
“Shia in Egypt have felt increasingly at risk after more than a year of mounting anti-Shia invective by Salafi sheikhs, Muslim Brotherhood members, and Al Azhar,” Stork said. “President Morsy’s immediate responsibility is to publicly denounce any hate speech against Shia and act against those in his party and movement who don’t follow his instructions.”
The June 23 Attack
The village of Abu Mussalim in Abul Nomros in Greater Cairo has a population of 30,000, including about 200 Shia Egyptians, according to one Shia resident. He said he could not give a more precise estimate because they never gather in groups of more than 30.
On June 23, 24 Shia, all but 4 from Abu Mussalim, had gathered in the home of Arafat Ali Omar to celebrate the birth of the Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi. One man who was inside the house at the time of the attack, and who asked not to be named, told Human Rights Watch that at about 2:30 or 3 p.m., the people inside saw a crowd starting to gather outside the house, including two Salafi sheikhs making phone calls and apparently directing people:
Then they broke down the front. We went up to the second floor and locked the iron door leading to it but they started pounding on that too. They started breaking all the furniture and threw the food in the street. Then they went onto the roof and managed to break a hole in the ceiling of one of the rooms. This was the most dangerous thing. They started throwing Molotov cocktails into the room through the hole and it set one of the men’s clothes on fire. Then they started throwing Molotovs in through the balcony.
The man said that at a certain point Sheikh Hassan decided to leave the house along with his two brothers and a fourth man, Emad, to protect those inside from further attack since the men outside were calling for Sheikh Hassan. Based on accounts of witnesses and video footage, the mob attacked the four men, who were not from the village, with metal rods and wooden sticks, beating them on their heads and backs. The mob then tied their hands and dragged them through the streets.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed the graphic video footage as authentic. One video shows the mob dragging the four men from the house as soon as they came to the front door and then beating them with sticks and metal rods until they fall to the ground, bloodied.
Another video broadcast on the Egyptian TV station ONTV shows the lifeless body of one of the four men tied by his legs and arms with rope and dragged through the street. Video footage obtained by the Egyptian daily Tahrir shows a crowd chanting “God is great” and, “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Islam” as they surround a lifeless, bloodstained body on the ground. In the video at least two men then stamp on the body.
Police Failure to Intervene to Protect
Researchers from the human rights group the Arab Network for Human Rights Information arrived at the village on the evening of the incident and spoke to a local police official who told them that the events had occurred because “the sheikhs from the mosques went out last Friday and said that Shia are apostates and we have to kick them out of the village.”
Hazem Barakat, a political activist from the village, told Human Rights Watch that he had heard from his brother that there was trouble in the area and arrived outside the house at around 3:30 p.m. and saw about 1,500 people gathered there, some of them chanting. Police officers and dozens of riot police stationed nearby made no move to intervene, he said.
The presence of riot police indicates that they had deployed in expectation of violence. Bakarat, who had tried to film as much as possible of the attack, said that by 5 p.m., he saw that Sheikh Hassan had been killed. At this stage the police intervened to recover the bodies of the four men.
The Shia resident, who was inside the house as it was being attacked, told Human Rights Watch that before the four men left the house:
At one point there were three policemen standing on the stairs trying to get people to go down but they couldn’t do anything. One of the policemen came into the room with us at one point and we were begging him to help us.
Barakat told Human Rights Watch:
There were three riot police trucks there when I arrived, stationed around 300 meters away from the house. They had batons, shields, and tear gas. I spoke to the officer in charge but he just said to me. “You’re not going to tell me how to do my job.”
A short film includes footage filmed by Barakat showing at least a dozen riot police stationed near the crowd.
Hate Speech Against Shia in Abu Mussalim Village
The authorities, and in particular the police, could have reasonably predicted that the Shia in Abu Mussalim were at risk and taken steps to prevent the attack and lynching, or at least have had plans in place to intervene early on to protect the Shia residents, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 22, a group of 18 Shia from the village had gone to visit the Imam Shafei mausoleum in Cairo at the same time as Sheikh Hassan, a prominent Shia religious leader who had been imprisoned for his beliefs under Mubarak and who lives in Cairo. They saw a man filming them entering the mausoleum. This video subsequently appeared on YouTube, uploaded by someone who gave his name as Mahmoud Ali.
On May 24, the Tawhid mosque in the village of Abu Musallim, which is run by the Da’wa Salafiya, the council of Salafi leaders, played the video on a projector in the mosque and then organized a march around the village chanting that Shia Muslims are heretics. A Shia resident told Human Rights Watch that in the days following that demonstration posters appeared around the village saying, “Shia are not welcome in our town,” and that people would sometimes yell “kafir” (apostate) at him in the street.
A few weeks later a group of Shia residents decided to invite Sheikh Hassan, who had lived near the village years ago, to join them for the celebration of the birth of the Imam al-Mahdi. One of them, who had spent 20 months in administrative detention in 2009-2011 in the Mubarak era for his Shia beliefs, told Human Rights Watch:
There were no more State Security Investigations, and an appearance of freedom, so we thought we now had freedom of belief. I should be able to invite whoever I want into my home, since we’re not gathering in a public place or hurting anyone else.
Weak Official Response to the June 23 Lynching
On June 24, President Morsy’s office issued a news release decrying “any transgression of the law or bloodshed, regardless of the reasons.” It said the president had given orders to bring those responsible to justice. On June 25, the Interior Ministry announced that it had arrested eight people in connection with the incident.
The news release fails to address the right of Shia in Egypt to freedom of religion and the duty of the president to ensure their protection from future attacks.
The strongest condemnation of the attack came from the deputy head of the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam al-Erian, who wrote on Facebook: “It is forbidden to Muslims to spill Egyptian blood. All Egyptian blood - Muslim or Christian, man or woman, Sunni or Shia, civilian or police.”
Other party leaders have not clearly stated that Shia have a right to practice their religious beliefs. Hussein Ibrahim, secretary general of the Freedom and Justice Party, said the party “strongly condemns the killing” and that the death penalty “can only be imposed by law … even where [people] have acted in violation of the law,” suggesting that the Shia gathering may have been illegal. A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Ahmed Aref, said the group “deplores the torture and murder of four people,” while at the same time stating that the ideas of the victims “are alien to our society.”
Arrests of Shia in Violation of their Freedom of Religion
Under former president Mubarak, in June 2009, State Security Investigations (SSI) arrested 19 Shia and detained them under the Emergency Law for “spreading Shi’ism” and “defaming religion.” Nine of the men were from Abu Musallim. One told Human Rights Watch that he had spent 20 months in detention and that security officials released the last of the group only in February 2011. He said that upon his return to the village “things had become difficult” for him and the other Shia. They could no longer pray in the same mosque as they used to before because the Salafi sheikhs Sayed Soliman and Hassan al-Khatib prevented them.
In July 2012, a court sentenced a teacher, Mohamed Asfour, to a year in prison on charges of “defaming Islam” because he had practiced Shiite prayers in a mosque.
Over the past two years in Cairo, state security forces have also prevented Shia from worshiping or celebrating religious festivals. In November, police prevented Shia from celebrating Ashura in the Cairo mosque of al-Hussein. In December 2011, security officials arrested seven Shia, including Mohamed al Derini, one of their leaders, for attempting to celebrate Ashura in front of al-Hussein mosque in Cairo without a permit.
The deputy minister of religious endowments, Mohamed Abdelrahman, told the newspaper Al Masry al-Youm on December 6, 2011, that Shia had not received permits from his ministry or security agencies to pray inside the mosque and that he was “surprised by their presence inside the mosque and their conduct of religious practices that deviate from religion. We asked them to leave the mosque and when they refused we turned to security forces, who succeeded in evicting them by force.”
Failure to Recognize, Protect Right to Religious Freedom
President Morsy himself participated in events at which there was violent hate speech against Shia, and his party and movement have at times been directly involved in hate speech against Shia and opposing their right to religious freedom. In April, Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau members and the head of its pedagogy department Dr. Mohamed Wahdan, said at a Freedom and Justice Party event in the governorate of Sharqia that the Egyptian people and government would not allow the spread of Shi’ism in Egypt, as reported on the website Ikhwanonline under the title “There is no place for Shi’ism in Egypt.” On June 15, President Morsy spoke at a conference supporting the Syrian opposition at which a sheikh, Mohamed al-Arifi, described Shia as “non-believers who must be killed.”
In April, the Salafi Nour Party, which won 25 percent of parliamentary seats in 2012, began a series of rallies in Alexandria, Kafr el Sheikh, and other cities called, “Shia Are the Enemy, So Beware of Them.” Also in April, posters with the Nour Party logo said “Together Against the Shia” appeared in Alexandria. In May, a Nour member of parliament, Tharwat Attallah, said that Shia “pose a danger to Egypt’s national security,” and called for an end to tourism from Iran, a predominantly Shia country. The Nour party website article entitled “Cooperation between the Da’wa Salafiya and Nour and the Police to remove Husayniyat.”
Al Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt, acknowledges Shi’ism as one of the recognized sects of Islam. Yet in May 2012, Al Azhar hosted a conference attended by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Da’wa Salafiya who, in their closing joint statement, declared their determination to prevent Shia celebrations and the spread of Shiism in Egypt “because Egypt is a Sunni country.”
In February, the Sheikh of Al Azhar, Ahmad al Tayeb, said in a news release, after meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran, that he “rejected the spread of Shi’ism” in Egypt. At a May conference called to discuss “The Danger of the Spread of Shi’ism in Egypt,” a banner said, an Al Azhar professor, Mahmoud Shaaban, warned that Shi’ism had started to spread in Egypt.
During the drafting of the constitution in July 2012, Salafi members of the Constituent Assembly pushed for the inclusion of a clause banning questioning or criticizing the “rightly guided caliphs,” which targeted Shia beliefs. At the time, Younis Makhyoun, one of the Nour members, told Al Masry al –Youm that this provision would halt the spread of Shi’ism in Egypt and put an end to attempts to build Husseiniya, Shia houses of worship. Sheikh Abdel Tawab Abdel Hakim Qotb, Al Azhar’s official representative in the Constituent Assembly, was quoted as saying that Al Azhar would “resist the spread of Shi’ism, which harms God and his prophet.”