05/09/2014 Washington, DC. (International Christian Concern) – Egypt is preparing for presidential elections at the end of this month. The United States Congress is considering resuming its financial assistance to Egypt. Against the backdrop of these two events, the situation for Egypt’s Christians remains dire.
In Mallawi City, there is a sense of panic and fear amongst Christians, especially after the abduction of Michelle Shenouda. In 2014 alone, there have been 22 kidnappings throughout Minya province.
Minya has been a flashpoint of violence against Christians in recent years. Attacks have increased over the nine months since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has been removed from power. Safaa Saleh, writing for Al-Monitor, said, “The year 2013 saw great strife in Minya, where as many as 30 churches were burned and many people were killed.” This violence has continued into 2014 with Christians regularly being abducted and held for ransom.
Serial Kidnapping of Christians
In a conversation with ICC staff, director of the Word Center for Human Rights (WCHR) in Minya, Ezzat Ibrahim disclosed that late on April 11, three armed and masked Muslims abducted 32-year-old Michelle Shenouda, a Christian trader and proud owner of Givenchy Shop of Accessories and Women’s Handbags in Mallawi city, Minya Province. After closing up shop, Shenouda was on his way home with friend and army officer Emad Awny when the gang attacked the two. After forcing Shenouda at gunpoint into their car, the assailants fled the scene, leaving Awny in the street, bloodied and beaten.
“On the second day of the abduction, they contacted his family, demanding a ransom of one million Egyptian pounds for his return,” said Ibrahim. His family was unable to raise that amount of money, but negotiated the ransom down to 35,000 Egyptian pounds. On Sunday morning, April 20, Michelle Shenouda was safely returned.
According to Awny, the car used to abduct Shenouda was the same car used to abduct Peter Nagy Farag, a 4-year-old Christian boy kidnapped the morning of March 19. Faraq and his 6-year-old sister were romping down the streets of Mallawi city on their way to nursery school when a group of assailants broke up the two children, forcing Faraq into their vehicle before speeding off. The kidnappers later contacted Faraq’s father to demand a two-million-Egyptian-pound ransom in exchange for his son’s safe return home.
Unable to pay, Faraq’s father begged his son’s kidnappers for a lower ransom demand. The assailants halved their initial demand, asking one million Egyptian pounds for Faraq’s safe return home. Still unable to meet their demands, Faraq’s father offered everything he had in exchange for his son. “At last, on Monday evening, March 25, Peter returned to his family after his father had paid an amount of 400,000 Egyptian pounds to the abductors,” Ibrahim told ICC.
Local police officers’ seeming indifference to the abductions and total inability to capture and punish those responsible continue to contribute to communal angst building amongst Minya’s Christian population. “Christians in Minya are targeted and kidnapping them for ransom has been increasing under the absence of security,” said Ibrahim.
On the evening of April 7, Michael Mohsen Mohareb was leaving the pharmacy he manages for the night to meet his father in nearby Deir Tasa Village to help close a second pharmacy before heading to their home in Abotig City for the night. Suddenly, three armed and masked men jumped from the bed of a modified pick-up to hold Mohareb at gunpoint. They forced him into the truck and sped off, leaving nothing but kicked up dust at the scene of the abduction.
Concerned by his son’s absence, Mohareb’s father placed several phone calls to his son’s cell. Unable to get through, Mohareb’s father made his way to the Bawit pharmacy, but his son was nowhere to be found.
Panicked, Mohareb’s parents paced the floor of their house all night, worried sick over their son’s unexplained disappearance.
The following afternoon, Mohareb’s abductors placed a call to Mohareb’s father, demanding one million Egyptian pounds as ransom for his son’s life. “On Friday, April 11,” said Girgis Mounir, a Christian in living in Abotig City and a relative of Mohareb, “the father of Michael paid a ransom of 450,000 Egyptian pounds to the abductors and Michael was returned to his family.”
Raafat Atef, a Christian in Beni Suef, told ICC that on April 9, three armed and masked men abducted an 8-year-old Christian primary school student named Attia Medhat while he was on his way to school. The men forced Medhat into their car before fleeing the scene.
After the abduction, Medhat’s kidnappers contacted his grandfather, a rich lumber trader, to demand a ransom of five million Egyptian pounds in exchange for his grandson’s safe return.
However, on Sunday, April 13, police successfully located the abductors in an apartment in Cairo city. The men were immediately arrested and the child was set free.
Unfortunately, the successful result of Medhat’s scenario has been far too rare. The authorities have been either unable or unwilling to
put an end to the gangs preying on Christians in Upper Egypt.
“The police and other state forces have done very little to stem the tide of criminal activity targeting Copts; indeed, among the Christian communities in these areas, there are rumors of payoffs and threats made to keep the police off the gangsters’ backs,”writes
Jay Roddy of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Yet, in this context the hope is that things are getting better for Egypt’s Christians, and for the country as a whole. The evidence seems to bring this assertion into question.
Certifying Steps Towards Democracy?
The continued instability and lack of security for Christians throughout Upper Egypt highlights the serious concerns regarding the effectiveness of the government in Egypt and its commitment and ability to cultivate a political and social environment that is inclusive off all Egyptian citizens.
It also raises questions regarding whether the United States should continue to provide military and humanitarian aid, a process that requires certification that the Egyptian government is meeting certain qualifications.
The Egyptian military has played a prominent role since the removal of former President Mohammed Morsi from office on July 3, 2013. The likely victor in this month’s presidential elections is former Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who stepped down from his post as head of the Egyptian armed forces on March 26, 2014 to run for office.
Since the removal of Morsi, the interim government and the security forces have not been able to provide protection and stability for Egyptian citizens, particularly the Christian minority, or to foster a democratic society that protects basic human rights.
In the government’s attempt to stifle dissent they have imposed crackdowns on protestors, human rights groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Often times protest turn violent and drive further attacks on innocent bystanders, such as Mary Sameh George,
or fuel reprisal attacks on churches and property.
Charges should be brought against those responsible for attacks on Christians, such as the 102 charged for the more than 40 churches attacked in August 2013, as AFPreported
. But with more than 15,000 jailed since the ousting of Morsi and mass death sentences handed down to over a thousand people
with little-to-no time for evidence to be presented against them, the government has failed to show its commitment to implementing the rule of law.
Members of Congress have threatened to withhold additional aid being sent to Egypt because of these human rights abuses. “I am extremely disturbed by the Egyptian government’s flouting of human rights and appalling abuse of the justice system, which are fundamental to any democracy,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced on the Senate floor, Tuesday, April 29.
“I am not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military until we have a better understanding of how the aid would be used, and we see convincing evidence that the government is committed to the rule of law,” Leahy
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa also expressed apprehension on the direction Egypt is going and whether American aid is being directed to the right actors.
“I remain concerned over the steps that still need to be taken for a democratic transition and respect for human rights,”
Ros-Lehtinen said. “The upcoming presidential election will be a litmus test for Egypt’s transition and will give us an opportunity to reassess our aid package,”
she stated at a Subcommittee hearing
on April 29.
An Egypt that is not committed to implementing the rule
of law will struggle to ultimately provide any protection for its minorities. In Egypt, Christians, as much as anyone, are longing for a society that protects the fundamental rights and freedoms of all.
There are questions about whether or not this is the road that Egypt is traveling, but for the sake of the Christians throughout Egypt we hope and pray that it is.