(New York) – Egyptian authorities should bring to justice those responsible for the sectarian violence that left five Christians and one Muslim dead on April 5, 2013, in the town of Khosus, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also investigate police failure to intervene effectively to prevent an escalation of violence outside the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo on April 7, after a funeral service for the Christians killed at Khosus.
Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians, Egypt’s largest religious minority, are rarely properly investigated and punished.
“President Mohamed Morsy needs to acknowledge the deep and longstanding problem of sectarian violence in Egypt and take decisive steps to address it before it escalates further,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “For years people have been getting away with sectarian murder and he should break that cycle of impunity. Then he should reform laws that discriminate against Christians’ right to worship.”
Incidents of sectarian violence between members of Muslim and Christian communities have occurred with increasing frequency and intensity, in particular since 2008, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks such attacks. At least five incidents of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims have taken place since Morsy came to power in June 2012. However, prosecutors initiated investigations in only one case, in Dahshour, south of Cairo, in July 2012, and even these investigations did not lead to any prosecutions. Since Morsy became Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the authorities have taken no steps to investigate serious incidents of sectarian violence committed under the preceding military government, or during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian law discriminates against Christians by prohibiting the renovation or construction of churches without a presidential decree, a requirement which is not applied to other religions and their places of worship. This has long been a source of tension between Christian and Muslim communities. A failed attempt to draft a unified law on places of worship, which would apply to mosques and churches equally, took place after a particularly serious bout of violence at Imbaba in May 2011. Article 43 of Egypt’s new constitution, which took effect in December 2012, explicitly recognizes the right of Christians to have their own places of worship, but the government has yet to repeal the earlier discriminatory law. The government should ensure that the Shura council prioritizes changing the law to remove this obstacle to Christians’ right to worship, Human Rights Watch said.
Violence in Khosus between Muslim and Christian Families
It is unclear what sparked the sectarian violence that broke out in the town of Khosus, in Qalyubia, north of Cairo, on the evening of April 5. According to the French news agency Agence France Presse, citing an Egyptian security source, Muslim residents became outraged after people they believed to be Christian children sprayed a swastika onto the wall of a religious institute affiliated to Al Azhar. Some local residents claim that a fight between Christian children playing soccer and a Muslim man and his sister escalated after their families became involved, followed by other members of their two communities.
The ensuing violence raged for several hours, during which protagonists set fire to buildings and shops and engaged in violent clashes leading to the deaths of one Muslim and five Christians. An April 8 statement by the Egyptian Presidency stated that “security forces contained the situation and deployed forces throughout the city to prevent further clashes.” However witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the police response was slow and ineffective.
The priest of the Margirgis Church in Khosus Sorial Younan told the Egyptian daily Tahrir that the regular police arrived two hours after the clashes began, and that five hours elapsed before the arrival of the Central Security Forces (CSF), the riot police. Ishak Ibrahim, religious freedom researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the police had arrived at least two hours late.
Boules Fakhry, who owns a shop selling alabaster wares in Khosus, told Human Rights Watch what he witnessed on April 5:
I reached the area around the church at around 6 p.m., I heard the cleric of the mosque calling out from the loudspeaker ‘Kill all the infidels,’ meaning the Christians. After 9 p.m., things started to get bad. Most of the area behind the church was very dark, but we heard gunshots. The CSF came really late, very few of them, with sticks and shields. They were useless, they were standing far away from the church, like 200 meters away.
Mina Fathy, a resident of Khosus, told Human Rights Watch that he had arrived at the