Thousands mourn victims of Maspero violence; church blames ‘infiltrators’

ByOmnia Al Desoukie
Daily News Egypt

CAIRO: Egypt’s Orthodox Church called on Christians around the world to pray and fast for three days to mourn the martyrs of Sunday’s violence.

The church’s Holy Synod condemned in a statement what it described as “an attack on Copts.”

Deadly clashes between army forces and protesters resulted in the death of 25 and around 330 injuries on Sunday night when a march to Maspero — demanding Coptic rights and condemning an earlier attack against a church in Aswan — was itself met with violence.

A statement released by the Holy Synod after a meeting with Pope Shenouda accused “infiltrators” of fueling the clashes.

“Copts feel that their problems are recurring without anyone being held accountable, without enforcing the law and without presenting any solutions for the root causes,” the statement read.

Head of the Episcopal Community in Egypt and the Middle East Bishop Mounir Hanna Anis said in a statement that the way sectarian issues are dealt with leads to more strife.

“Reluctance to take necessary legal actions against whoever fuels sectarian strife that weakens the state of law all lead to escalating tensions,” he said, adding that resorting to reconciliation sessions is “shameful.”

Thousands of Copts attending a mass at the Abbasiya Cathedral mourned their dead and many were furious at the ruling military council. Eyewitnesses say army forces used heavy-handed violence against peaceful protestors and that army vehicles ran over protesters on Sunday night.

Sunday saw the deadliest clashes since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. A curfew was imposed from 2 am to 7 am on Oct. 10 in Tahrir Square and surrounding areas, all the way to Abbasiya.

By morning, the situation had calmed but devastated families mourning their loved ones could not be consoled.

Some of the injured were taken to the Coptic Hospital in central Cairo, where hundreds of Copts had gathered early on Monday. The hospital had taken in at least 17 dead and numerous wounded protesters.

Inside the morgue, dead bodies were laid on the floor, a number of which with visible bullet wounds. One victim’s face was crushed, and according to eyewitnesses, he was one of several protesters run over by army vehicles.

Various eyewitnesses told Daily News Egypt that nine bodies were thrown into the Nile but this could not be independently verified.

Throughout the day, chants resounded around the hospital and at the Cathedral: “Raise your head high, you are a Christian,” and “Down, down with Tantawy.”

A dozen young angry Copts attacked a police car on a side street near the church, venting frustration over police involvement in brutality towards citizens. But others on the scene asked them to stop.

Ramy Atef, 26, suffered a broken leg and said that an army vehicle ran him over almost completely, but people managed to pull him away. “Is this Essam Sharaf, the revolution’s prime minister? Where is that revolution?” he said.

A Coptic lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “Every event that takes place in Egypt against Copts is never investigated properly. Why did they open fire on peaceful protesters while they did not against those who attacked the Israeli embassy?”

Presidential hopeful Bothaina Kamel, who joined the protesters on Sunday, said she sought shelter at Al-Hurra channel’s office along with some protesters once the violence started, adding that they could hear attackers in the building saying “Allah Akbar (God is Great).”

“By the time we got out, we found the stairs were broken. To pass by any of the street checkpoints we had to prove that we were Muslims,” said Kamel.

Egypt’s Coptic community makes up around 10 percent of the population and has long complained of discrimination and demanded equal rights. While many are quick to point out the marginalization of Egypt’s Copts, less are inclined to label the country as a sectarian state.

Many observers have said that these underlying issues are often manipulated by authorities seeking to cling to power, an accusation often leveled against the Mubarak regime.

Incidents such as Sunday night’s events are usually followed by widespread calls for national unity and shows of solidarity between Muslims and Christians.

The latest crackdown has brought these issues back in the spotlight.

“Why didn’t they [security forces] do this with the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood when they organize protests?” said Sami Raouf, one of the protesters.

Confusion at the morgue

Early in the day, families at the Coptic Hospital debated whether to send the victims for autopsies. While some demanded that autopsies be performed, others objected. Priests at the hospital had attempted to convince families to allow doctors to conduct autopsies, but they refused.

An exclusive meeting was convened to make a final decision, comprising the Coptic Hospital’s director Dr Moheb Ibrahim Fanous and members of the general prosecution, national security and two priests. Only three journalists, including a reporter from Daily News Egypt, were allowed in.

Death certificates were initially issued without families’ consent, but the family of deceased activist Mina Daniel stormed the meeting and demanded that autopsies be conducted first.

“We want to know exactly what killed our son — an army bullet or a civilian bullet or what?” his mother said.

Later on, the Orthodox Church approved the procedure and some families agreed. Those who did not, however, laid the bodies of their loved ones to rest after a mass at Abbasiya Cathedral on Monday.

The hospital itself does not house a forensics department, but it was agreed that personnel would be brought in from the Zeinhom Morgue. At time of press, autopsies had been completed on all victims.

Families of those who were buried earlier said an autopsy will just be another injustice, citing the case of Khaled Saeid.

Thousands mourn in Divine Liturgy

By the time four coffins arrived at the cathedral, thousands of distraught Copts had congregated inside and outside, mourning and chanting against the ruling military council.

“We will live and die to protect the cross,” chanted thousands.

As coffins were carried into the church, thousands hailed the victims as martyrs who were destined for heaven.

Pope Shenouda was present at the mass along with presidential hopeful Amr Moussa as well as Gamila Ismail.

After prayers, a representative of the Holy Synod read the statement condemning the violence. However, it did not mention the military council, which many Copts present believe incited violence against them.

They specifically blame state TV for saying that Coptic protesters were attacking the army, and urging citizens to go to the streets and protect the armed forces.

Some Muslims joined the Liturgy in solidarity.

“I am here supporting the families of the martyrs and I was hoping that a lot of Muslims would make it to show the whole world that it is not sectarian strife, but an army against its people,” said Amira Abdel Hamid, one of the protesters who was also in the march.

Egypt’s top Muslim official called for emergency talks on Monday between Muslim and Christian leaders, AFP reported.

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, who heads Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning, called for talks with members of the Egyptian Family — an organization that groups Muslim and Christian clerics — “in a bid to contain the crisis,” state television said. –Additional reporting by Essam Fadl.