Politically charged Coptic funeral ends in violence, one death

Salma Shukrallah, Sunday 7 Apr 2013

Emotional funeral for victims of Saturday's sectarian bloodletting ends in violence outside Cairo cathedral leaving dozens injured, at least one dead

Politically charged Coptic funeral ends in violence,
Coptic Christians run on the roof of the main cathedral in Cairo as police fire tear gas during clashes with Muslims standing outside the cathedral April 7, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

A sense of panic quickly spread among mourners as they prepared to leave Cairo's main Coptic cathedral on Sunday afternoon. Young men ran in and out of the church telling funeral attendees to beware of unknown assailants outside pelting mourners with rocks.

"They're attacking us?" a young girl, almost in tears, asked anxiously.

The clashes, which erupted immediately after the funeral of victims of Saturday's sectarian violence in the north Cairo governorate of Qalioubiya , only added to the general mood that had reigned over the funeral ceremony. Many expressed sadness stemming from a strong sense of discrimination.

Angry young Coptic men, armed with sticks and rocks, rushed to an adjacent building from which stones were being thrown. Within a few minutes, tensions escalated as firecrackers were thrown at the angry Coptic youth.

Gunshots could also be heard from the street on which the building is located.

Police, meanwhile, maintaining a safe distance from the clashes, fired teargas.

"The police are firing [teargas] at us…they're taking the [assailants'] side," shouted one young Coptic man.

Several hours into the violence, Egypt's interior ministry released a statement accusing Coptic mourners of smashing cars parked in front of the cathedral, leading to a fight between them and local residents, which in turn forced police to intervene.

Within a few hours, the cathedral was being pelted with rocks and Molotov cocktails by plainclothes assailants standing on neighbouring rooftops and by teargas from police.

Ambulances rushed to the scene in order to transport the injured, the total numbers of which Egypt's health ministry has put at 29. As of 7pm, at least one person had been reported killed.

Coptic anger

Throughout the funeral, women's sobs and screams could be heard, revealing the sense of anger and fear among churchgoers, many of whom believe their faith has made them targets.

"We're the owners of this land!" many chanted. "Hold your head up high, you're a Copt!"

While the church has tried to remain politically neutral, with Bishop Rafael – who led the prayers – asking people to remain calm and pray for the dead, political chants were frequently heard.

"Leave, leave!" and "Down with the rule of the [Muslim Brotherhood] supreme guide!" echoed loudly inside the church, overshadowed by the sound of prayers echoing from the microphones.

"You must stay calm," the bishop urged. "You can only honour the martyrs by staying calm and praying for them."

In his speech, however, Bishop Rafael reiterated mourners' fears for their future as Christians in Egypt under Islamist rule.

First remembering the victims of the Two Saints Church bombing in early 2011, Bishop Rafael went on to name the four Copts killed in Saturday's sectarian clashes in Qalioubiya's town Khosous: Morqos Kamel (25 years old), Victor Saad (35), Mansour Attia (45) and Essam Tawadros (25).

The declaration of each name was followed by applause and ululations from the assembled crowd.

"This deep wound, which is not the first of its kind, leaves me with three messages in my heart," said Rafael.

"One is to the heavens…We [Copts] believe in heavens' justice…Christ taught us that he avenges the blood of the martyrs and that the martyrs' blood is not forgotten by God," he said, to which mourners responded by chanting: "With our souls and blood, we will protect the cross."

"My second message is directed to Egypt: We will not leave…governments cannot rule by shedding blood," Rafael added, to which mourners responded: "We will not leave; this is our country!"

"My third message is directed at Egypt's Copts: We shall not abandon our faith," the Bishop concluded. "The bloodshed only makes us embrace our faith even more... We will not compromise our religious ethics, which call us to love all."

Right before clashes erupted, 35-year-old Sahar told Ahram Online that some of those in the church would head to the defence ministry afterwards to demand that the nations' churches be put under military protection.

"We have come under one attack after the next…but what do you expect from a president who neither respects the law, the judiciary or anything else, and is only concerned with the Brotherhoodisation of the state?" asked Sahar.

"We suffered attacks before as well, but now we had a revolution and the Copts were the first to revolt in Omraniya, yet it has become worse than before," said Sahar, referring to Coptic anti-discrimination protests during the Mubarak era.

Split over military

Meanwhile, some political activists were angered by calls to march on the defence ministry. Present at the funeral was also Mary Daniel, sister of leftist Coptic activist Mina Daniel, who was killed by military personnel in October 2011.

"Copts are split between those who want the military back for protection and those who still remember the military tanks that ran over Coptic bodies only last year," said Coptic political activist Sally Toma, referring to the "Maspero massacre" in which 24 Copts were killed.

"It is lawyer Naguib Gabriel who wants to take the people to the defence ministry," Toma asserted. "But there are Christians among us who will continue to remind the others of what happened at the hands of the military…we are against both the Muslim Brotherhood and rule by the military."

On Saturday, four Christians and one Muslim were shot to death – and at least eight injured – in Cairo's Qalioubiya governorate.

Sectarian clashes erupted when a group of Christian teenagers reportedly painted offensive drawings on the gates of Cairo's Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest seat of Islamic religious learning.

The situation escalated when an unknown individual fired a shot into the air, killing a young boy with a stray bullet.

In the aftermath of the violence, 15 people were arrested and the area was surrounded by police.

Several Christian-owned shops were reportedly smashed by angry protesters. Some Christian and Muslim properties were also reportedly torched during the violence.  

Short link: