Amid security failures and prejudice, small sparks can set sectarian violence alight

A group of men gathered Monday in the middle of a street in Khosous, a town in the Delta governorate of Qalyubiya, where sectarian clashes erupted last Friday, spilling over into the following days.

In intense discussions, the men talked about means to prevent the renewal of clashes.

“The police won’t always be here to protect us. We have to know how to protect ourselves,” Abdel Meguid Abdel Hamid, a Christian teacher, told the crowd.

He was aware that the police would soon withdraw, leaving the area without the slightest security presence — just as before.

Around the gathering, two coffee shops had been burned to the ground. Rocks and broken glass lay scattered all over the narrow streets, and scorch marks on many of the small residential buildings stood as proof of the intense sectarian clashes that have intermittently terrorized the area’s residents.

While there are different stories about how an incident turns into clashes, they are all indicative of an equation that has and continues to lead to catastrophic results.

A perfect storm of security failures, hate discourse and deeply rooted sectarianism that explodes at the slightest provocation turned a personal conflict between a handful of people into a sectarian street war Friday that escalated further into an attack on St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo's Abbasseya on Sunday.

“The problem is when I have a fight with this guy over here, and then it is seen as a fight between a Christian and a Muslim,” said Abdel Hamid, pointing at his Muslim neighbor, who was among those gathered to discuss the crisis.

“We have to keep religion out of our problems. A Christian shoots at people in the street — they should arrest him and not kill other Christians,” he exclaimed.

Area residents feel as confused about the cause of the events as many across the country.

Most Khosous locals blame the family of lawyer Samir Iskandar, who is affiliated with the former regime and is now being detained in relation to the violent clashes, for the death of the first and only Muslim victim of last week's fighting, which then led Muslims in the area to attack and kill four Christians at random.

Some say a Muslim man harassing a Christian woman triggered the clashes; others say Muslims were provoked by a drawing of a cross on an Islamic building. Others still, refusing to acknowledge the existence of sectarian tensions in their area, blame it on thugs from outside.

Another group, worried that answers may disturb what remains of the fragile peace between Muslims and Christians in the area, spurned the question and attempted to silence those who tried to tell their versions of the story.

But a group of women who live in the street and said they witnessed the start of the clashes spoke up. They allege Farouk Awad — Iskandar’s cousin, who lives in a building opposite the Islamic Institute, where the fighting began — yelled at children who were playing with paint in the adjacent building. Drawings on the building next to the Islamic Institute feature names and nicknames such as “Mostafa” and “the ghost” and include a depiction of a swastika that the women say children drew unknowingly.

News outlets reported the drawing was a cross Christians put on the Islamic Institute. The presidency, seemingly failing to inspect the scene of the events, also acknowledged in a formal statement the story of the cross propagated in the news.

The women said that when the children refused to listen to Awad, he started firing his gun in the air in an attempt to scare them away, accidentally shooting a Muslim bystander dead.

“We found a woman yelling in the street that her son was shot, and then in five minutes, it was a massacre,” one woman recounted.

The abundance of weapons in the area and the lack of security contributed to the dramatic escalation.

Following the death of the Muslim bystander, the women say Muslims torched Awad’s building and began randomly targeting Christians around town.

“I won’t lie to you, they captured a Christian and set him on fire in the middle of the street,” one of the women said.

“But can you imagine what state they were in? They saw a man who was killed, they lost their minds,” she added, without apologizing for their actions.

The women report that a police officer saved Awad and his family from the angry mob and transported them away from the area, but failed to protect innocent people caught in the ensuing violence.

Though an official narrative has yet to emerge, authorities detained 15 suspects Monday, charging them with riotous behavior and the possession of firearms and Molotov cocktails. Confused narratives, however, continue to speckle the country’s media.

Many blame an unknown individual for the transition from an allegedly accidental shooting involving two families to a sectarian conflict that has engulfed the entire area. Some, however, claim it was in fact the local mosque’s imam, who announced the death of the Muslim victim over a loudspeaker, urging Muslims to take up arms and kill any Christians they encountered.

Clashes in Khosous reignited Sunday evening as the attacks on the funeral for the four Christian victims at an Abbasseya cathedral catapulted local sectarian tensions to a national level.

Mourners proceeding out of St. Mark’s, carrying the caskets of the Khosous victims, were attacked by unknown assailants with rocks, forcing the procession back into the cathedral.

Security forces reacted by firing tear gas into the cathedral. Two deaths resulted as the clashes, which started in the afternoon, continued into the night.

In Khosous Sunday, residents say groups of Muslims and Christians became entangled in a street battle with arms on both sides, each group targeting businesses owned by the other.

One Christian family exhibited a torched motorcycle and the burnt ground floor of their apartment as proof of the unjustified attack on their household.

Many complain that when Sunday’s clashes started, police fled the scene, and the lights in the area were turned off.

The attack on St. Mark’s cathedral — one of the most important Christian symbols in Egypt and the Coptic Christian world — signifies to many a new peak of intolerance and disrespect toward Orthodox Christians here, making life even more unbearable for the minority community.

“We don’t have a place here [in Egypt] anymore. They want to drive us out,” one of the cathedral’s administrators said. With streaks of dirt on her black clothes, she left Sunday’s funeral and subsequent clashes ashen-faced.

The official response from the president’s office fell short of reassuring Christians shaken by the attack.

In a statement Monday, the assistant to the president on foreign relations and international cooperation, Essam al-Haddad, directly blamed Christians for starting the violence in both the Khosous and Abbasseya clashes.

Haddad said in the statement that “an argument over Christian-themed graffiti on the wall of an Al-Azhar building in Khosous” was to blame for the clashes.

As for the Cairo events — despite all reports indicating that the peaceful mourning procession was attacked — Haddad claims residents were provoked by “angry mourners vandalizing cars lined up on Ramses Street.”

The presidency’s inability to clearly condemn a party for the cathedral attack, save for a glib rejection of violence, has made senior Church officials uncharacteristically critical of the government.

Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, accused the government in a telephone interview on the privately owned ONtv satellite channel of “negligence and poor assessment of events.”

While Christians have given up on the symbolic gestures and formalities affirming national unity, the pope for the first time mirrored the sentiments of the community, telling officials their compassion is not enough and that strict measures are needed.

Responding to Morsy’s decision to revive the National Council for Justice and Equality, the pope said there were enough committees and that it was time for real work on the ground. Tawadros also singled out Morsy, accusing the president of breaching his promise to do everything necessary to protect the cathedral, adding that the attack on the two-century-old church is unprecedented and had crossed all kinds of red lines.

Tensions also reached the upper parliamentary house when Coptic MPs withdrew from Tuesday’s session after an Islamist MP blamed Christians for the recent sectarian tensions.

A tense and fragile peace, as of Tuesday night, holds in Khosous. Security forces and civilian-organized popular committees continue to surround the town’s Mar Girgis Church, anticipating the renewal of clashes.

Most shops have either been burned or are now closed, as many family men remain home to protect their houses.

“We feel like we’re not in Egypt anymore, like we’re living in a different country,” Ishaq, a local shop owner, says. “There is no safety anymore. I could be sitting at home and still worry that a word uttered outside or some event elsewhere could lead to an attack on me.”

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