Approximately 70 Copts who were arrested following clashes with police two weeks ago went home in the early hours of yesterday, according to family members. 84 remain in prison.
The Copts were arrested following clashes between police and Copts who rioted last month over a municipal council decision to halt construction of a church building in the lower middle class district of Omraneya.
Aida, a woman in her 30s, says her husband and three more of her family members were detained after the clashes. Two of her family members were released but her husband is still in prison.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Aida, a resident of the area where the church is located, explained that on the day of the clashes she heard gunshots at 5:30am. "When we went to see what was going on we found the church covered with smoke and people shouting 'God save us!' When we ran back to our home to hide we saw the police arresting my father-in-law, and the other men who interfered got arrested too after the police violently beat us," she said.
Aida awaits her husband's arrival home after the church's pastor assured families that all should be released.
The new church that was being built and that triggered the clashes was meant to serve the Coptic community in Aida’s area, a slum area where most houses are built without permits and streets are unpaved.
The detained were arrested when the local government suspended construction on the new church that was being built in a community service centre, sparking the riots.
Two Copts were killed and dozens were injured. Police arrested 154.
Those arrested face charges that include the attempted murder of police officers and the intentional sabotage of public facilities.
According to residents of the area, the local governor had previously given his blessing to the construction of the church, but when the dome was being built, police objected, alleging that the dome was not in accordance with construction regulations. However, the construction went ahead anyway, leading to tensions between the police and church members.
The case of the Omraneya Copts seems to be particularly fraught, according to lawyers and activists. Rights lawyers say they were not allowed to look at the police investigation reports, a necessary procedure if a lawyer is to follow a case. The only lawyers who got access to investigations were those assigned by the church, according to lawyer Michael Raouf.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, on the other hand, has been following the case closely since the clashes erupted. During his weekly sermon on Wednesday evening, Pope Shenouda III insisted that the church would do its best to bring justice to the victims and punish all perpetrators, adding that "Coptic blood is not cheap."
Anger has been mounting since the 24 November clashes as family members were not allowed to attend court hearings of those detained prior to the clashes, a process usually open for anyone.
During the last hearing which took place 9 December, the North Giza Court was surrounded by hundreds of state security guards blocking all the main gates. The hall where the hearing was taking place was also blocked to assure that family members of those charged did not gain entry.
According Sarah Nagbui, an activist in the newly formed Association for the Defense of the Residents of Omraneya, “the relatives of the two killed during the clashes were not allowed to mourn their dead and had to carry out the funeral back in their original villages in Upper Egypt.”
Isaac Ibrahim from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says that the Omraneya case is an example of both sectarianism and police repression equally. "The security apparatus usually resorts to force with several groups, including Islamic militant groups," insisted Ibrahim, "but the police’s violent reaction to the building of the church was initially triggered by sectarianism."
“The area where the church was being built is a slum area which means that none of the buildings there follow legal building procedures anyway,” added Ibrahim.
Other rights groups have long said that laws dealing with the construction of places of worship were a problem, arguing that the lack of a unified law has caused severe sectarian tensions.
A group of activists and intellectuals who formed Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination two years ago have been working together with other rights organisations and MPs to draft a bill that would unify the legal procedures necessary for building places of worship.
Although the bill was presented to the outgoing parliament, it was never discussed.