Only the intervention of government figures, faith and human rights organisations made it possible for five Egyptian Christian families to return to their homes after mob violence drove them from their village. SAT-7 Egypt journalist Mary Joseph describes how religious extremism and Egypt’s informal legal process of “reconciliation sessions” can result in Christians being expelled from their communities.
Ayman, an illiterate man from Upper Egypt, was working as an agricultural labourer in Jordan when the terrible news from home came. A phone call told him that his entire family – his 80-year-old parents included – were being evicted from their village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef after a mob had besieged their house all night long. Villagers had been outraged after a post insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad had appeared on Ayman’s personal Facebook account.
Calm was briefly restored, but at a high price for Ayman’s family. Elders gathered in two “reconciliation sessions” headed by the mayor of the village and Muslim sheikhs. They reached a collective decision of charging the family a quarter of a million Egyptian pounds (approx.. £21,000 Sterling) as compensation for insulting Islam. The monetary charge later fell to 50,000 EGP (£4,000). But the villagers had different ideas and early the next day surrounded the family’s house and forced five Christian families to leave the village penniless. They included Ayman’s family, his parents, two brothers and their families.
Collective punishment rule
Ayman’s case is not the first where Christians in Egypt have been expelled from their villages as part of collective punishment when one person has been accused of wrongdoing. With a lack of government security or the support of religious figures, many fanatics push their agenda to cleanse their villages and towns of Christians. Having scratched out a meagre living in these villages all their lives, they are left to face homelessness, deprived of their previous sources of income and stripped of their savings.
In Ayman’s case, prompt intervention from government figures supported by human rights organisations, permitted the family to return to their homes and friends celebrated their return. According to Ishak Ibrahim, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, this took the efforts of 22 Christian organisations and NGOs, who wrote an open letter to the Egypt’s President, complaining against the illegal and unconstitutional proceedings of the reconciliation sessions and displacement of Christians.
This time, the government was quick to act before the situation deteriorated further. Criminal Court Head, Amir Ramzy, said the Egyptian Prime Minister, Ibrahim Mehleb, called the Beni Suef governor and insisted on the immediate return of the families. Many internally displaced families are not so fortunate.
Internal displacement of Christians as a tool of punishment
The scenario of many sectarian conflicts begins with the incitement of violence against the perpetrators by shouting chants against them, throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. Then the violence is curbed by elders and sheikhs through reconciliation sessions that usually end up with an agreement of payment, and if the defendant family cannot afford it, forced eviction.
One recent case involved a teacher and four students who made a film making fun of ISIS. Even though ISIS and its affiliates have been declared terrorist organisations in Egypt, locals considered the film to be contemptuous of Islam. As a result, the students were forced to leave their school and find another.
Another case that drew attention for its archaic judgment occurred in June 2014 in the Cairo district of Matareya – a poor area and Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. A reconciliation session was held to resolve a dispute between a Muslim and Christian that had led to violence and one Muslim’s death. The session organisers ordered the Christian family to pay five shrouds (the traditional equivalent of saying “I am dead” and ostracised by the community), five calves, a hundred camels (only tourist workers own these nowadays), a 234-square meter piece of land and a million Egyptian pounds. Unable to pay, the family members were expelled from their homes.
The justification for reconciliation sessions
Reconciliation sessions are unconstitutional and have no legal status but do play a part in reducing community conflict. Unfortunately, as one observer put it, “Reconciliation sessions are not primarily about justice; they are about calming things down, maintaining peace and quiet lest the government or police come in and create a security presence that affects everyday business”. While a just response to sectarian strife would be to call the police to investigate, village elders and sheikhs prefer to gather representatives of those involved as quickly as possible and impose a quick decision. “The only winner,” the observer said, “is the majority”.
“Reconciliation sessions are not about justice …They are about calming things down”
Amir Ramzy, lawyer and Head of Egypt’s Criminal Court, however, defends the system because he claims it offers a chance of repentance for the perpetrator and mercy from the plaintiff. The results of reconciliation sessions are not recognised in the criminal law but, in cases where the plaintiff is offered compensation and agrees to drop the charges, the case is closed and no court sentence is needed.
Nevertheless, Ramzy adds that offences such as inciting violence against individuals or forcing them out of their homes are themselves criminal offences and need to be punished by law. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution states: “All forms of arbitrary forced migration of citizens are forbidden. Violations of such are a crime without a statute of limitations”.
Yet there are no known cases of people who committed forced migration being brought to justice. Egypt’s continued failure to prosecute incitement to violence leaves the door open for more fanatics to go on spreading false lies about Christians, to foment violence and drive people from their communities.
The real story behind the insulting post
We return to Ayman, a farmer and illiterate man, who doesn’t actually know how to use Facebook. Because phone calls from Jordan are costly, he created the account to get in touch with his family via the internet. But his phone was stolen, he says, and he can only conclude that the post was published by the person who stole it.
Emad, Ayman’s brother, called live on SAT-7 weekly current affairs programme, Bridges, to say that their families had returned to the village and were joyfully received by the elders of the village and government figures. He added that he was raised in this village and has lived there all his life but young teenage boys had fuelled such anger to create problems.
Pray God’s protection upon vulnerable Christians in Egypt’s villages. Ask that God would prevent people from inciting hatred against them and that other villagers would not be taken in by these lies. Ask that Christians will be respected and trusted and that community elders will be ready to act justly and resist intimidation.
How SAT-7 supports Christians at risk
Bridges is SAT-7 ARABIC’s weekly current affairs programme. It often draws attention to breaches of human rights, including the stories of Christians in poorer communities fined or made homeless by reconciliation sessions. Read more about Bridges.