Community ‘justice’ expels Copts from their homes

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Emad Youssef and his extended family are quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.

“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). A 78-page report by EIPR – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions” (CRS).

In concept, CRS is community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, ‘wise men’ of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, CRS is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the CRS took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them’ – a local Copt, choosing anonymity, stressed.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a CRS and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us”.

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and over 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News (MCN), the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani (which helped first report the story) is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told WWM.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state”.

Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Abdul Rahman at the EIPR press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015This incident is unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a CRS. But lead author of the EIPR report Ishak Ibrahim stated that the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.

“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions.

“We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land and property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after CRS-stipulated penalties, often exorbitant. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

— by World Watch Monitor

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