Coptic Orthodox Christians in Al-Kosheh, Egypt, celebrated Christmas in a nearly empty church on January 6. The main church building in this southern village with a Christian majority, 250 miles south of Cairo, was draped in black. Villagers were grieving the loss of 20 Christians and one Muslim who all died in a shootout on Sunday, January 2. The shootout began with a conflict between a Christian trader and his Muslim customer. Friends of both individuals joined in along religious lines. Fighting and looting began, but nobody had been killed before Sunday.
Eyewitnesses say the police intervened on Friday and stopped the fighting. The skirmishes broke out again on Saturday and again police stopped the fighting.
Christians went to the village church on Sunday for a funeral. False rumors spread that the person was killed by a Muslim. When church bells rang at 10:30 a.m., shooting from surrounding rooftops erupted from both Muslims and Christians. One Christian went into the church tower and began shooting.
Father Gabriel of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Al-Kosheh says the barrage of gunfire lasted three hours. In the end, 20 Christians, including children, women, and teenagers, were dead. One person later died in a hospital.
Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, sent Bishop Marcos and Bishop Serabamun from Cairo to Al-Kosheh to investigate the matter only hours after the attack. They presented a report to Pope Shenouda, Usama el-Baz (President Hosni Mubarak's adviser for Political Affairs), and General Salah Salama, the head of Egypt's Central Security Agency.
Based on his investigation, Bishop Marcos blames the incident on the poisoned atmosphere between Muslims and Christians in Al-Kosheh. "How else can one explain that the fight between a Christian and a Muslim results in such an outburst of communal violence?" he says.
After the massacre, Egyptian authorities reported that "peace has been restored." Several villagers visited each other during the Christian and Muslim feast days, but feelings of distrust, anger, and hate persist.
A Shattered Peace
Both local Muslims and Christians say the two groups lived peacefully in this predominantly Christian village before August 1998, when two Christians were killed in a fight during a gambling brawl. Days after the deaths, Christians accused a Muslim family of the killings.
But local police believed the killer was a Christian, and authorities feared that accusations against a Muslim could spark conflict. Hundreds of Christians were arrested in massive and often brutal interrogations in an effort to find the murderers.
Christians responded by spreading their torture allegations in the West. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and others supported their claims of maltreatment, although some villagers' exaggerated stories tarnished their credibility.
The EOHR, Bishop Wissa, and others believed that the police were not appropriately reprimanded. This has led some Christians to fear for their safety in Al-Kosheh.
Pope Shenouda's secretary, Bishop Yo'annis, said in November 1998 that some of the international reporting about Al-Kosheh exaggerated the situation and contributed to sectarian tensions in Egypt.
Egyptian government officials accused Coptic Orthodox Bishop Wissa of sending negative reports to foreign journalists and human-rights campaigners. Muslims in Al-Kosheh felt they were targeted for attack by these foreign media reports.
But the arrogance of local Christians may have added to sectarian tensions. A Protestant pastor from the area said he felt Christians in Al-Kosheh had become proud of attracting so much international attention to their case.
He also said Christians were rebuilding a church in Al-Kosheh without asking for government permission, which is required by law but often ignored because such permits are difficult to obtain.
When asked about the church building, Bishop Wissa responded with an indignant "So what?"The Protestant clergyman said he believed such attitudes stoked anger among local Muslims and the authorities.
Egyptian journalist Mohammed Salah said in the Los Angeles Times January 6 that Muslims apparently felt the Copts' arrogance demanded that Muslims "knock them down hard."
Copt activists believe they achieved important changes when they confronted the Egyptian government with human-rights violations against Christians.
Joseph Assad of the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House says international attention has improved conditions for Copts. "People are able to repair churches. More permits are being given," Assad told the Internet news service Newsroom.
Christian leaders in Egypt confirm Assad's words but caution he should distinguish between improvements with the central government and feelings in the community. "These feelings are not addressed by international attention, but they need to be addressed in Egypt," Bishop Marcos says.
Eyewitnesses, local priests, Bishop Marcos, Hafez Abu Seada of the EOHR, and journalists who visited the scene believe the killings were not only the result of a poisoned climate, but also of a virtual absence of local police when the murders took place.
Some observers have asked why the police failed to call for reinforcements from the provincial capital Sohag and why they remained idle when Christians were killed. But officials responded that the shootings were mainly on the rooftops and in a different parts of the village, which made it difficult to intervene.
Nabil Osman, head of Egypt's State Information Service, said it is too early to accuse anyone.
"Once the perpetrators are found, they will be brought before court and they will be severely punished," Osman said. Police have arrested 86 people so far.
Bishop Marcos has confidence in the current investigations. "This time President Mubarak is listening with two ears. He is informed by the church and his own security service—which is unlike the previous time about Al-Kosheh, when he was only informed by his own security service."
The Egyptian Cabinet discussed the tensions and is expected to take stiff measures. Pope Shenouda has not made any formal public statement on the murder and is awaiting further official government response. Meanwhile, some Muslim businessmen promised the Christians in Al-Kosheh to repair the lost property.
Some Christian traders told journalists they wanted to leave Al-Kosheh for Cairo. Priests also asked Bishop Marcos and Bishop Serabamun to be transferred to Cairo. The massacre could trigger a movement of Christians to Cairo and other cities, reducing the percentage of Christians in Al-Kosheh in the coming years.
The Al-Kosheh incident was on a scale Egypt has not seen since the 1970s, although it is not the first time in Egypt that social tensions have escalated into communal violence.
A conflict between a Christian and a Muslim trader in the Delta village of Dimyana in the summer of 1995 brought thousands of Muslims to the streets and led to the deaths of seven Christians. False rumors in another Delta village, Kafr Damyan, in February 1996 brought a mob of thousands of Muslims to the streets, demolishing and looting Christian property on a large scale.
"Our main problem is the poisoned climate between Muslims and Christians among large parts of the population," Bishop Marcos says. "We should not neglect this, but deal with it. After all, Christians only have a future in Egypt if Muslims and Christians live together in harmony, and we should work towards that end."
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