Egypt's Christians close ranks as kidnappings spike

Close to 100 Christians have been kidnapped for ransom in southern Egypt since the 2011 revolution. Frustrated by police indifference, Christians are now demanding action.

By , Correspondent

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    Hani Abdel Malek, a chicken farmer, stands in the sugar cane fields at sunset on June 20, 2013 near Naga Hamadi, Egypt. Malek was kidnapped and held for ransom in the sugar cane fields near Naga Hamadi. Tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims in the region have been high with an attack on a local church in 2010 and subsequent kidnappings of Coptic Christians for ransom.

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Hany Sedhom's story begins the way dozens of others begin: it was dark, and he was driving home to a village on the outskirts of this sleepy city in late September.

Suddenly a car and motorcycle emerged out of the night, blocking the road. The men quickly got out and pointed automatic rifles at his head. Mr. Sedhom considered stepping on the gas and trying to escape, but he quickly abandoned the thought when the men fired at his car. They dragged him out of the vehicle, striking his head with a rifle butt and slashing his face with a knife before tying his hands, blindfolding him, and driving off into the desert with him. 

Over the next 48 hours, Mr. Sedhom was beaten, taunted, and threatened with death. He was given no food, and only filthy water to drink.

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He was finally released after his wife paid a ransom of 300,000 Egyptian pounds (about $43,500) – but not before his kidnappers threw him into a pit, pressed a gun to his head, and told him it was all over.

Sedhom's terrifying ordeal has become familiar for Christians throughout southern Egypt. More than 100 people have been kidnapped for ransom in this marginalized region in the last two and a half years, nearly all of them Christians, according to activists and church officials. And there has been a sharp increase in kidnappings in the months since Aug. 14, when hundreds were killed as police broke up two sit-ins supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

Although more than 80 people have been kidnapped in Minya Province alone, the rest of the country knows little about the burgeoning scourge of opportunistic violence. And victims, activists, and church officials say the police have largely ignored the problem, rarely taking steps to stop the kidnappers or bring them to justice.

A group of kidnap victims and a Coptic Orthodox Church official say they've waited long enough. In late October they planned a protest in front of the governor's office, and decided to begin publicizing the problem. When local officials found out, they invited the group to meetings with the governor and security chief in Minya. Group members are wary of broken promises, but they say the official acknowledgement of the problem is an important first step.

“If the police tried, this could be stopped,” says Sedhom. “'If’ is the key word here.”

Bishop Makarios, the highest Coptic Orthodox Church official in the city of Minya, said that although the church traditionally confines itself to a spiritual role, comforting and counseling victims, church officials felt compelled to take a stance when the kidnappings spiked.

“Even though some Muslims would say that the church shouldn't have a role in politics and shouldn't interfere in such matters because it's not our role, the truth is that the state hasn't carried out its role, and the church members are being harmed, and they're pushing the church to take action,” he says. “If the state would do what it was supposed to do, then no one could interfere in this.”

Crimes of opportunity

Minya, a provincial capital with a high Christian population, could also be called Egypt’s capital of kidnappings. More people have been snatched in this city and Province than in any other place in southern Egypt. Christians, particularly doctors and pharmacists, who make up most of the kidnap victims, live in fear of disappearing on a dark rural road like Sedhom – or that their children will be snatched on the way to school. Some rural communities are suffering from decreased access to healthcare because Christian doctors are afraid to travel to their clinics outside the city, where many of the kidnappings occur.

Christians are targeted because they do not have tribes or families who retaliate, unlike many Muslims in southern Egypt. As a tight-knit minority community, they are also perceived as able to raise large sums of money from friends and relatives for ransoms. And in Egypt, crimes against Christians have long gone routinely unpunished, fueling an environment of impunity.

The kidnappings are mostly crimes of opportunity, not hate. But some suspect that the spike of the last three months has been driven by Islamists’ blame toward Christians, who they accuse of supporting the protests and military coup against Morsi.

When the number of people kidnapped since August rose to about 20, Bishop Makarios asked church officials to tally the number of people taken since 2011 so he could have a firm number to publicize. Officials have been calling each known victim, gathering information about when and where they were kidnapped, and how much the family paid in ransom.

So far, the count has reached 80 in and around the city of Minya, and the bishop estimates that it will surpass 100 in the province. There have also been around 30 kidnappings in another hotspot, the lawless village of Naga Hammadi further south. An unknown number of people have paid protection money after being threatened with kidnapping.

Sometimes the victims are treated well until their families pay up, but not Sedhom. He was left blindfolded with his hands bound behind his back for the length of his captivity. “I spent 48 hours without food, water, sleep, or light,” he says. “Every time I asked a question, they beat me. The water they gave me was so repulsive, I couldn't bear to drink it – I don't know if it was from the sewer or what.”

He said his kidnappers appeared to take delight in terrorizing him – at one point, they threatened to cut off his finger and send it to his wife as encouragement to raise the ransom. Later, they discussed killing Sedhom in front of him. Before he was released, they took him to a pit and pushed him inside. Lying there, Sedhom said he could smell the stench of death from something else in the pit as they pressed a gun barrel to his ear, his forehead, his mouth.

“I was sure I was going to die,” says Sedhom. The husky, middle-aged doctor says his faith sustained him throughout the ordeal.

“I never thought I could take one millionth of what I endured,” he says. “But every step of the way, every moment of pain, I could feel God there with me, telling me, 'I'm going to save you.'”

Taking action

When Sedhom told others his story, he suspected he had been taken by the same gang that kidnapped one of his friends, a doctor, in February 2012.They found two others who had similar stories.

The fact that the gang has been operating all that time with impunity discourages victims’ families from contacting police when kidnappings happen. If police have done little to help others, they reason, why risk more lives by defying the kidnappers’ orders and contacting authorities?

Both Sedhom and the doctor, who asked to remain anonymous because of the kidnappers' threats, filed police reports after they were released. Both say no suspects have been arrested in their cases.

Both men were among those who met with local officials. The local head of security forces began the meeting by accusing the victims of perpetuating the crisis by failing to file reports, says the doctor. But by the end of the meeting, he had promised to devote more resources to the problem. 

There are now more checkpoints throughout the city, but most of the kidnappings take place in villages on the outskirts of Minya, not in the city center. “We want to feel interest,” says the doctor. “The fact that they're trying is a good step. But our cry mainly is for the interior minister to pay attention to this governorate in general. ... You can't imagine the tragedy we're living through.”

Minya’s security director, a recent appointee, was unavailable for an interview, but an official in the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, said local police were working hard to bring kidnappers to justice. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 17 cases of kidnapping had been recorded in Minya in August and September. According to him, nine people have been rescued through police intervention and eight suspects have been arrested – and the search isn’t over.

“We are doing our best, even if our capabilities are limited a little now because of the circumstances we passed through,” he said, referring to the weakened police force after the 2011 uprising. “But now we are restoring our power, and we're doing our best to apprehend all the criminals and to settle the situation all over Egypt.” 

Moving on

The bishop says he knows of only two or three people rescued by police in the last three months. The weakening of security forces and proliferation of weapons among citizens since the 2011 revolution do not excuse police inaction, he says.

“In the last three years, police efforts were negligible. And this actually encouraged amateurs to start their own kidnap ventures.”

He is encouraged by the official promise of action, but says he and the others will wait to see if officials follow through.

One of the signs of progress is Maged Wilson Eskander, an obstetrician in the village of Asmant, outside Minya. On a recent day, more than a dozen people waited for care in his simple clinic. When he emerged from the examining room, they crowded around him, offering congratulations on his safe return.

Dr. Eskander was kidnapped on Sept. 30. After 10 days, his wife paid a ransom of 200,000 Egyptian pounds ($29,000). But instead of releasing him, his captors demanded more money. After 15 days, police stormed the place where he was being held, around 100 kilometers away, and rescued him safely. One of his kidnappers has been arrested and is being charged.

He and his wife, Afaf Abdel Malek Fahmy, attribute the police action to the length of time he was held and the publicity his case received. Along with media publicity, they said, high-ranking church officials in Cairo brought his case to the attention of police officials. 

He says he has hope that his case is the beginning of greater police action and that the situation will improve. But in the meantime, he says, he stays close to home, and doesn't travel at night.

This project was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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