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Outmoded custom?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 07 - 2016

Saturday was the last day of reconciliation sessions in Minya's Abu Yacoub village. The final meeting ended in agreement that Muslims compensate the Coptic Christian villagers whose homes they had burned down after a rumour spread that one of the houses was being converted into a church. In return the five Christian families whose houses had been damaged agreed to drop complaints filed with the police.
The customary reconciliation session was held under the auspices of Minya MPs, the Egyptian Family House, an organisation established in 2011 by Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church, and representatives of security forces. Major-General Tarek Nasr, governor of Minya, did not attend the session.
The sectarian violence broke out on 15 July when Muslim villagers set fire to five Christian homes after rumours spread that one of them was being turned into a place of worship. Sixteen of the assailants were detained following the incident, only for a court to order their release following the reconciliation attempts.
Under the agreement the arsonists must pay LE30,000 to the families whose homes they set on fire. Each household will receive an additional LE10,000 payment from the governorate.
In a speech on 21 July, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned against attempts to create divisions among Egyptians. “We have to pay attention to all the attempts being made to create rifts between Egyptians. Christians and Muslims are equal in rights and duties,” Al-Sisi said during a speech at the graduation ceremony of the Military Academy last Thursday.
Pope Tawadros II warned on the same day that Egyptians should not allow recent events to be exploited to undermine national unity.
“We should not allow those seeking to exploit events in a society of 90 million people, one that suffers from financial difficulties and shortage of resources, to succeed in undermining national unity because their goal is the destruction of our country,” said Tawadros.
Al-Sisi and Tawadros' comments were made days after a Coptic man was stabbed to death in the street in the same governorate. On 17 July Fam Mari, a 27-year-old man and a cousin of a local priest, was killed and three others injured in the Minya village of Tahna Al-Jabal. According to a statement by Minya Archbishopric the street argument escalated quickly and took a sectarian turn. Al-Ahram, however, quoted the Minya governor saying the incident was “criminal” and not “sectarian”.
Bishop Makarios of Minya says the incident was sparked by an argument between children from Muslim and Coptic families which span out of control when their adult relatives intervened. Minya prosecution authorities ordered the detention of four Muslim men, aged between 17 and 22, suspected of killing Mari.
No customary reconciliation session has been held in the case though they are the tool most commonly used in Upper Egypt to resolve conflicts, including those of a sectarian nature, between families.
Bishop Makarios was quoted by Al-Tahrir news website saying it is possible no reconciliation had been undertaken till now because “there was a murder involved and feelings are still running high”.
“There is silence on the part of the government. Some think these incidents are just ordinary fights and that Copts are exaggerating when they portray the events as sectarian strife but the reality is the opposite,” said Makarios. “These incidents are a cause of great concern.”
In Beni Sweif 18 Egyptians were detained on Sunday on charges of “disrupting public peace and assaulting personal freedoms”. They are accused of damaging the house and a car of a Coptic neighbour after throwing rocks at a Christian-owned building that it was rumoured was being converted into a church. In May Muslim villagers in Minya's Al-Karm village burned seven Christian homes and assaulted an elderly Coptic woman, parading her naked in public, after rumours were spread that the woman's son was having an affair with a Muslim woman.
Meeting with parliament's Religious Affairs Committee on Monday Pope Tawadros said: “These recent incidents are very painful. I am patient and tolerant but these events are alarming.”
Tawadros said he had recently received a report detailing 37 separate sectarian attacks against Copts since 2013.
“Egypt is known for coexistence between its Muslim and Christian population and for not looking at Copts as a minority. This image is being distorted in front of the world and it is our responsibility to correct the distortion,” Tawadros told the committee.
On Thursday the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) expressed “deep concern” over recent incidents of sectarian strife and announced it would be sending its own fact-finding committee to Minya.
The council also noted that resorting to customary arbitration to contain the violence “generally ends in favour of the stronger parties and in many cases results in Coptic families being forcibly evicted from their homes”.
The council reiterated the need to guarantee the equality of all citizens before the law.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) released a statement expressing “deep concern” over the recent spike in sectarian violence.
Bishop Boulos Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, said imposing the rule of law away from the customary reconciliation sessions and working to raise awareness about the principles of coexistence and brotherhood are the only way out of the crisis. “A construction of churches law is an urgent necessity and parliament needs to pass it at the earliest opportunity possible,” Halim told Al-Badil Arabic news website.
In a telephone interview with Al-Hayat satellite channel on Sunday Bahaaeddin Abu Shoqa, head of parliament's Legislative Committee, said a draft law on the constructing of churches has been discussed by the committee and forwarded to the government and relevant religious authorities. “We expect it to be returned to parliament at the beginning of August. If it then wins the vote of MPs, it will be submitted to the presidency for ratification,” Abu Shoqa said.

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