With Minya prosecutors releasing on Sunday five defendants on bail who were suspected to have been involved in sectarian attacks against Christians in the Upper Egyptian governorate last week, some fear that possible attempts to reach reconciliation may result in the assailants escaping justice.
President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi had urged the government to take "necessary measures to preserve public order to protect [citizens] and property within the rule of law" after the sectarian mob attack in El-Karm village, which saw several Christian homes burned and an elderly Christian woman stripped in public.
Members of the ‘Family House’ organisation, made up of Al-Azhar sheikhs as well as Coptic Orthodox Church officials, visited the village in Minya in an attempt to help resolve the issue.
An official delegation visited the village and held a meeting at the governor’s office to "affirm the rule of law and hold the perpetrators accountable," as well as help spread “religious and moral awareness so such incidents... do not take place.”
The meeting was attended by the governor and several Christian leaders and MPs.
However, Bishop Macarius of Minya and Abu Qirqas, delegated by Pope Tawadros II to speak on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the Minya case, denounced the visit, which he said aimed to reach a reconciliation that would prevent the perpetrators from being held accountable.
He said the Christian officials who attended the meeting did not represent the Coptic Orthodox Church.
"I refused to attend the meeting so as to deliver a message that enforcing the law should come before any meeting," he said in an official statement.
The bishop said the efforts by the ‘Family House’ could lead to a "crisis" where the victims are “forced to withdraw.”
He added that similar interference in several earlier incidents that led to "reconciliation" resulted in the issue never being resolved.
A member of the delegation, Abdel-Fattah El-Awary, denied the claims that talks about a possible reconciliation took place.
"No one discussed the issue of reconciliation. How can reconciliation take place if justice has not been served?" El-Awary said in a phone interview with a television programme, adding that the ‘Family House’ was responding to El-Sisi's call.
Reconciliation vs justice
Religious and community leaders often hold meetings to resolve sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians in an extra-legal manner in Egyptian villages.
The head of the religious freedoms desk at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Ishak Ibrahim, told Ahram Online that such informal assemblies convened to solve sectarian issues “have always had a bad and worrying history.”
“Such reconciliation sessions are often used as a justification to resolve the issue by having victims give up on their rights,” Ibrahim says.
According to Ibrahim, the prosecution is still obliged by law to continue its investigations and collect evidence and listen to eyewitnesses.
"This is a crime that involves an assault on families and the threatening and intimidation of citizens," he adds.
Ibrahim believes that this latest incident – which he says was particularly extreme due to its degrading nature – comes amid a growing frustration with these reconciliation talks.
"There had to come a time when people feel that such [efforts were circumventing] the law," he said.