Ten-year-old Romany sits in the same room where his family huddled together nearly three weeks ago, afraid for their lives, as a violent mob attacked their house.
His family had fled to this room on the top floor, where pictures of Jesus and Coptic saints hang on bare cement walls. His parents dragged heavy furniture to the door, barricading it as they heard people try to break in below. The mob was throwing rocks at the windows, and he heard gunfire, says Romany. They were cursing Christians.
“We kept praying that God would be with us,” says the fourth-grader. “And He was.”
As the mob set fire to the home of a Christian family across the street, Muslim neighbors saved Romany’s family, hustling them out of their house by a back entrance, into a car, and out of the village, until it was safe enough to return.
The violence in Sharbat began as many sectarian conflicts in Egypt do – with rumors of an affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. It ended with eight Christian families forced to leave the village, their property and belongings left to be sold on their behalf by a local committee. The punishment for those who looted and burned Christian properties? None.
The decision was the outcome of a “reconciliation meeting,” in which the fate of the accused is determined by locals rather than the law. The meetings have long been used in Egypt to handle sectarian conflicts, leaving victims little recourse. Hosni Mubarak may have been ousted a year ago, but methods haven't changed. Members of Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament sat in on some of the Sharbat meetings, effectively sanctioning the use of extrajudicial means.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who wrote a report on the incident, says that political parties must set a new precedent for dealing with sectarian tensions by applying the law in this case.
“If Islamic parties, and all parties, insisted on applying the law, and don’t accept the results of these reconciliation meetings – if we do that, I think it may have a positive effect on sectarian incidents,” he says. “Because one would know if he torched or destroyed houses or shops of Christians, he will go to court and be charged.”
Refusing to stand up for justice for Christian victims in Sharbat, by contrast, could have dangerous implications for future religious strife in Egypt, which is home to the Middle East’s largest Christian population.
'They were looking for a reason to attack Christians'
Sharbat is a small village near the western edge of the fertile Nile delta. Along potholed streets, hand-painted signs for the salafi Nour Party cover the cement shelters of bus stops, fences, shops, and the walls of homes.
Samir Rashad, Romany’s father, says the recent violence in Sharbat was not the first case of tension between Christians and what he calls radical Muslims there. But it was the worst. It started with rumors that a local Christian man had photos or videos showing him in a sexual relationship with a local Muslim woman.
The man surrendered to police, and no images were found. But on Jan. 27 a large crowd gathered in front of his father’s home. Armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and guns, they stomped on wooden crosses and shouted about defending the honor of Islam, says Rashad, who lives just across the alley.
They soon began attacking Christian homes and shops in Sharbat. At least three Christian homes were completely destroyed after crowds lit them on fire, and at least 10 shops owned by Christians were looted, including Rashad’s tailoring shop. Some were burned.
Amid the attacks, the son of local Christian businessman Abskharon Suleiman fired a gun, in what Mr. Suleiman says was an attempt to scare off the attackers who looted and burned his shops and his family’s homes. No one was shot. According to EIPR’s report, security forces only intervened hours later, though village leaders had called them when the violence began.
Rashad says there are many honorable Muslims in the village and some intervened to save Christian families like his. But he blamed the violence on radicals. “This was just an excuse for them to generalize everything against Christians and say we want to get them out of the village,” he says. “Those radical Muslims have been meaning to do something like that. They were looking for a reason to attack the Christians.”
How the Christians' punishment was determined
In the wake of the violence, several reconciliation councils convened, attended by elected representatives from the Nour party. Lawmakers from Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) also attended some councils. Some of the councils were overseen by police and governorate officials.
They first agreed to expel the man who supposedly had the affair, along with his father, his brother, and their families from the village. But, angered by the Suleiman family’s use of a gun, another mob burned another home. A subsequent reconciliation meeting decided that Suleiman, his four sons, and their families would also leave. The committee, led by a local salafi sheikh, would sell their belongings for them and pass the proceeds to the Suleimans.
EIPR says those meetings were illegal, because the law demands a criminal investigation into arson. Those who sponsored the agreement, says EIPR, “flagrantly violated the law.” A document that details the terms of Suleiman’s departure says that the sheikh will be responsible for finding those who attacked Christian homes.
Parliament begins investigating
Two and a half weeks after the incident, on Feb. 13, the speaker of Egypt’s parliament tasked the human rights committee with investigating it. But secular lawmaker Emad Gad said he had asked the speaker, FJP’s Saad El Katatni, to take action nearly a week before and was ignored until the issue was picked up by local media.
In a recent TV interview, a Nour party spokesman said that it contradicts Islamic law to evict Christians from the village, but said salafis intervened to keep bloodshed from happening in the village.
Ahmed Gad, an FJP member of parliament from Alexandria who visited Sharbat after the violence, says the party supports applying the law in such situations. But he also says it is normal, in rural areas, for families to resolve disputes through reconciliation meetings. “Most of them are Bedouins, and this is how Bedouins solve things,” he says.
Ahmed Gad says no families were forced to leave the village except those allegedly involved in the inter-religious affair, and that the incidents in Sharbat were not sectarian. He accuses Suleiman of igniting violence, and said he left the village voluntarily. “The one who caused the problem was Abu Suleiman,” as he is known in the village. “Abu Suleiman put himself in this situation, and he left because he’s the reason that things have gotten worse after he and his sons shot at people with their machine guns,” he says. “If Abu Suleiman wants to come back to the village, he can come back today.”
Suleiman: I didn't have a choice
Suleiman, who looks the part of a village patriarch, with a carefully grown mustache and traditional dress, says he didn’t really have a choice. He also looks weary as he tells his story in the traditional reception room of the Muslim family outside Sharbat who took in him and his family. He said the council told him that if he and his family didn’t leave the village, the violence would continue. “I agreed to leave to prevent violence,” he says.
An FJP statement Feb. 12 said “there is calm and stability in the village now, and Copts have no problems.” But Rashad says otherwise.
Though he and his sons have since returned to his home, he sent his wife and daughters to stay with family in southern Egypt, afraid that they would be abducted after the mobs threatened Christian women. A man recently pulled a knife on one of his young sons, gloating that “we trapped you like mice.” When the family escaped the mob, his house was robbed, including the items meant to furnish the new house of his daughter, whose wedding is in April.
“We had nothing to do with this,” he says. “It’s a story that involves two people. Why are we involved?”
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