Dahshour, a once quiet village in Giza, is now a busy, tense and angry place bustling with police and security personnel. Central Security and National Security forces are deployed at the entrances to the village and in front of the church there. They also stand guard by already trashed and looted houses of Copts who fled their homes Wednesday when a fight that erupted between a Christian and a Muslim led to wider clashes and the death of one Muslim and the injury of a dozen people.
The strife reportedly started when a Christian man working in a laundry shop burnt a Muslim man's shirt while ironing it. They had an argument and later in the evening the family and friends of the Muslim man gathered in front of the Christian man's house to continue the argument. According to eyewitness accounts, they gathered carrying knives and swords. The Christian man who was alone with his family threw Molotov cocktails at the crowd leading to the serious injury of one Muslim passerby who died last Tuesday in hospital.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who were monitoring the situation from the beginning and released a report 31 July urging the police to protect citizens and properties, "A mob tried to attack the local Mari Girgis Church, but a group of Muslims prevented them and protected the church until a police force came and dispersed the crowd. The mob later burned a Christian man's house and police failed to intervene." The report warned against escalating violence and collective punishment of citizens who are not part of the argument. It also warned that in similar cases the police have remained passive.
What EIPR warned against then happened. Police failed to protect Coptic citizens and properties and watched as violence escaled and hundreds fled their homes.
All accounts agree that the injured was a passerby, and that the fight started as a regular not sectarian argument. The village used to boast of a happily integrated Muslim and Christian community with growing business prospects that encouraged Copts to move there from neighbouring villages. The fight turned sectarian when the Muslim man died in hospital. This is also when all Christian families felt threatened and were pressured to leave their hometown by everyone from the police — who reportedly advised them to go, claiming they would not be able to protect them — to neighbours that promised to protect their properties, and even the local priest, who urged them to take their children and flee.
All Christian families left Dahshour before or during the funeral of the Muslim man. They mostly went to the nearby Dinaweya village, the closest village to Dahshour where they have relatives and friends. Later that night many were scared that Muslims from Dahshour would follow them, so they then dispersed across the governorate and even beyond. Some went to Cairo, others to Helwan or 6th of October City, and a few stayed in Dinaweya.
Sabah Malak, 23, tells the story of how she left Dahshour. "I was at home when my neighbours came and told me to leave everything, to take my children and go. They gave me a head scarf so people wouldn't tell that I'm Christian. I took Mariam, 5, and Amir, 2, and we left our rented house together with my sister and her children. My husband went to buy bread. A woman saw him and told him to go away. He said, 'Why me, I am not part of the fight? What have I done?' She said, 'You are Christian, go your life is in danger.' We all left running for our lives. We felt that being a Christian is an insult. We didn't have the time to take anything with us, not even money or clothes," said Malak in tears.
Malak is surrounded by crying mothers and grandmothers in a house decorated with large posters of the Virgin Mary and many Coptic icons. Amir and Mariam, her children, are playing with around 10 of the extended family's children. Later when Malak called her neighbour to check on her house, he told her everything was stolen or smashed and that he couldn't prevent the assailants, that reportedly were thousands.
Malak's cousin, Nabil Moussa, 19, who is both a tailor and a student, believes the police are responsible for the sad events. "They knew violence was escalating and they watched the whole thing unfold. They could have stopped it, but they preferred to watch," said Moussa. His mother, Nadia Girgis, interrupts. "Had they just fired gunshots in the air, they would have scared the assailants, but they are partners in the crime. Maybe they even take a share in what was stolen by the thugs," said Girgis whose son lost over 500 grams of gold when the mob attacked his jewelry shop and home.
Blaming the police is common among Muslims and Christians of Dahshour. Many of the eyewitnesses Ahram Online interviewed said the police watched passively. Policemen on the scene blame the media for reporting the story as sectarian violence. "It was just a regular fight, not religious. No one told the Copts to leave, they left out of fear. Everyone is blaming us. What could policemen do when we are around 1000 and the funeral was around 8000 people. We protected the church, we can't protect every house," said one policeman in front of the only church in Dahshour and that serves neighbouring villages.
Muslim residents in Dahshour also blame the media for how it reported the story. Om Ahmed started screaming at Ahram Online's reporter and photographer as we were taking photos of Coptic homes that were ransacked. Sofas, fans, a fridge and TV and a computer were smashed in front of the homes.
"What are you doing? You leave the real story, that a Muslim man died for no reason, and all you care about is some ruins. Morsi said he will compensate them, but who will compensate us for our blood?" At this point a few angry women, men and children gathered around us and started yelling. One woman said, "If Morsi has the millions to compensate the Christians, why does he leave people living in shacks?"
"Why are we humans cheaper than everything? The media portrays us as thugs and no one reports on the killing of the young guy?" screamed Om Ahmed, declaring that she will eat the perpetrator alive if she sees him. The police already arrested the Copt who threw the firebomb, together with his family, including a 17-year-old cousin who was seriously injured in the fight.
Security is tight in the village. We were not allowed to interview the family of the victim. We were also not allowed to take photos or come close to the church that is surrounded by at least 10 police trucks and hundreds of policemen. We were also not allowed to see the other Christian houses, shops and factories.
Dahshour is not the first incident where we see a group of Copts forced to leave their hometown amid sectarian clashes. The same happened in February when at least eight Coptic families left their hometown in Amreya neighbourhood in Alexandria following clashes between two families over a rumoured love affair between a Muslim man and a Christian woman. Sectarian tensions and religious violence in Egypt are on the rise, and at an alarming rate.
Many analysts fear that the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as Egypt's first democratically elected president following the 25 January 2011 popular uprising will leave Islamists emboldened and Egypt's 10 per cent of Christians subject to more prejudice. Both Dahshour residents and fleeing Copts, as well as many human rights and political activists criticised Morsi's late response to the Dahshour crisis. He only commented on the story on Friday during a speech at a mosque in Qena where he said the clashes were not acceptable and sent an envoy the following day to investigate.
"His speech in the mosque in Qena was full of hopes that these actions would not recur in the future. He is the president; he should give orders, not hopes," said Moussa, one of the Copts fleeing Dahshour. Moussa added that "Morsi needs to prove he really is a president for all Egyptians, and that Christians are citizens like Muslims, and not second or third class citizens."
Morsi's envoy will probably form a fact-finding mission. Human rights organisations have already sent investigative teams. Both EIPR and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights have published reports. Al-Azhar and some Shura Council members and politicians also went to the village in an attempt reduce tensions.
Christians that Ahram Online met affirmed that they had not been contacted by anyone. "With all due respect, we will not accept that this time sheikhs solve the problem. We are citizens and this will be only solved by the enforcement of law," said Moussa.
But while fact-finding missions and political figures try to resolve the crisis, hundreds of Coptic families remain homeless, jobless and threatened.
"I am now staying at my grandfather's, but how long can he host me and my family? My husband is afraid to go to work. They could find him and get him. My children cry at night and ask me, if we go back to Dahshour, 'Will they kill us?'" Malak says, demanding swift action.