Shaken but unbowed: Egypt's Copts in Minya still angered, demand retribution

Marina Barsoum , Thursday 8 Nov 2018

Marina Barsoum reports on the grief and anger following the deadly attack on three buses returning from the Monastery of St Samuel the Confessor in Minya

A relative of victims of an attack on a group of Coptic Christians attends a funeral, at the Prince Tadros Church in Minya, Egypt, November 3, 2018. REUTERS

When a group of Coptic Christian families set out to visit the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Minya they could have no idea they would not all be returning home. But on their return journey the buses carrying the pilgrims were attacked, leaving seven dead and 18 injured.

The injured were transferred to Minya local hospitals and then to Cairo’s 6 October district hospital in Sheikh Zayed.

Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali later announced the government would provide LE100,000 for the families of those killed in the attack. Those who were injured will receive LE50,000.

The Ambushed Bus

A woman, four men, a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl were killed when the bus was attacked. Six of the victims were members of the same family.

“There were three buses carrying a large number of families on their way back from the monastery. Terrorists ambushed the three buses, two were able to escape but the last was forced to halt on the road,” Bishop Macarius of the Minya diocese told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We were riding a microbus which carried 14 adults as well as children,” said Aida Shehata, 33, a survivor of the massacre, during a televised interview. “We were returning after visiting the monastery when we heard gunshots.”

Shehata, who was speaking from her bed in the Minya local hospital where she was receiving treatment for shrapnel injuries and gunshot wounds to her legs, said the driver had attempted to return to the monastery but was intercepted by one of the assailants’ vehicles.

“They kept shooting from all the directions at the bus. There were at least four gunmen. They told my daughter to collect all the passengers’ mobile phones and hand them over.”

“After the attack the floor of the bus was littered with bullets. I saw my husband, dead and covered with blood, his two brothers the same.”

The attack took place close to the site of an earlier attack, in May 2017, which left 28 Christian pilgrims dead. In the immediate aftermath the Coptic Orthodox Church banned visits to monasteries but the blanket ban was soon relaxed. Many monasteries depend on income from worshippers and tourists.

Ibrahim Farah, 31, was a passenger on the first bus which managed to flee the attack. He says the attackers were heavily armed and appeared to be aiming first for the driver and the tyres of the bus.

“They looked like they were trained and knew what they were doing but with God’s care we escaped.”

Farah said she tried to contact ambulances and the police but, 15km away from the monastery, the mobile network was weak.

On Friday a local Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack via the group’s news website Amaq. The accounts could not be immediately verified. 

Interior Ministry Response

A day after the attack mourners attended the funeral for the victims at Minya’s Prince Tadros Church.

“Feelings were high. Everyone was in tears in the congregation, the deacons, and even the bishops,” Father Youssef Sargious told the Weekly. “It is very hard to have six members of a single family massacred. There is almost no family now.”

During the funeral mourners held pictures of the victims and called on the authorities to act. Their grief turned to anger and the funeral prayers gave way to protest chants as the mourners carried a large wooden cross.

“We want retribution for them or we will die like them,” they chanted.

Copts in Minya see revenge killing as a right. It’s part of their culture and traditions, said Father Sargious.

Anger was not restricted to the funeral prayers. Soon it was all over social media platforms, with the hashtag of Minya trending. Inflamed tweets amplified the calls for revenge.

Two days after the attack the Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying it had killed 19 of the suspects in a shoot-out after police pursued “fugitive terrorist elements” into the desert west of Minya.

Images of bodies and a tent in which the assailants were said to have been hiding were posted alongside the ministry’s statement. Guns, rifles and propaganda for the terrorist group could be seen next to the bodies.

The statement came a day after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who was attending the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, vowed during one of his talks “to avenge the martyrs of Egypt”.

“I mourn with deep sorrow the martyrs killed today by treacherous hands which aim to undermine the fabric of the nation, and I wish the injured a speedy recovery,” Al-Sisi said.

“I confirm our determination to continue our efforts to combat dark terrorism and apprehend the culprits.”

Bishop Macarius said that some in Minya are sceptical of the Interior Ministry’s account of the tracking down of the alleged assailants.

People have been protesting, he said, and demanding that anyone responsible for security failings be held to account. 

Minya Again

In a brief video Pope Tawadros II sent a message of faith and hope and prayed for peace and unity. “In the hope of the resurrection, we bid farewell to them and know that God controls all events in all our lives,” he said.

“We pray for the martyrs and for the injured, and for the safety and peace of our country. We pray for the perpetrators who are accustomed to such incidents which cause grief, pain, and distress.”

Following the May 2017 attack Bishop Basilios, head of the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor, met with Minya security officials to discuss safety and security procedures around the monastery.

The monastery made a number of requests, including paving the 30km-long access road to the monastery, improving the mobile network along the road and deploying CCTV surveillance cameras at the entrance to the monastery.

Security officials promised to take the necessary actions and it was reported that LE30 million had been earmarked to pave the back road to the monastery. 

‘Killed For Being Christian'

During the funeral Bishop Macarius attempted to calm the grieving mourners with words of faith. 

“No one accepts injustice, intimidation and bloodshed. I am grieving with you, they were our sons too,” Macarius said.

The attack was met with widespread condemnation, local and international.

Roman Catholic Pope Francis prayed for the victims of the terrorist attack, saying that they were killed “for the mere fact of being Christians”.

Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Islamic Sunni authority, condemned the terrorist attack saying “the culprits of the cowardly terrorist attack are criminals without human values and are as far as can be from the teachings of religions which call for coexistence and peace and the renouncing of violence and hatred.”

Father Sargious says officials in Minya have promised to build a cemetery in the centre of Minya governorate in which the martyrs can be buried.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Shaken but unbowed  

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