Riot leaves an Egyptian village without Christians (AP) Associated Press) By SARAH EL DEEB DAHSHOUR, Egypt 08/04/12 3:36 pm ET)
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DAHSHOUR, Egypt – When the angry mob was rampaging through town,
storming her home and those of other Christians, the 70-year-old
woman hid in her cow pen, pushing a rock against the door. There she
cowered for hours, at one point passing out from tear gas being fired
by police that seeped in.
When Sameeha Wehba emerged just before dawn, she found she was the
only Christian left in this small Egyptian village just south of
Dahshour´s entire Christian community — as many as 100 families some
estimate — fled to nearby towns in the violence earlier this week.
The flock´s priest, cloaked in a white sheet to hide him, was taken
out in a police van. At least 16 homes and properties of Christians
were pillaged and some torched and a church damaged.
The violence was ultimately rooted in a dispute over a badly ironed
shirt that escalated into a fight in which a Christian burned a
Muslim to death, in turn sparking the rampage by angry Muslims.
"It was a devil´s moment," Wehba said Thursday at the home of her
Muslim neighbors, who have taken her in. "Whoever caused this was the
The unprecedented exodus underscores how sectarian divisions that
festered under decades of Hosni Mubarak´s rule are taking a turn to
the worse, complicated by the problems of post-revolution Egypt, a
country where 10 percent of the population are Christian.
Police forces have been weakened and often don´t carry out their
duties. Islamists have been emboldened, with rhetoric fanning
hatreds. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, Muslims and Christians
alike feel freer in unleashing prejudices that in the past were kept
barely under the surface.
Most notably in Dahshour, police did nothing as tensions spiraled
following the burning of the Muslim man late last month.
While the man clung to life for several days, Muslim residents openly
threatened to retaliate against all Christians. When the Muslim died
Tuesday, the only solution from police was to encourage or assist in
removing the Christian population before the violence erupted that
night, Christians say. During the rampage, security forces acted to
stop the crowd from storming the church, firing tear gas.
"What is grave this time is that violence was not only expected but
preventable, and security forces failed to prevent it even though
they had prior knowledge," said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian
Initiative for Personal Rights, which monitors sectarian violence.
In the past, incidents of sectarian violence in Egyptian towns often
took a routine course. A local spat between a Muslim and Christian
would escalate, and if a death occurred, violence would be sparked.
Police would often see a bit of unrest as a way to let off steam but
then negotiate a compromise solution over the death. Officials would
deny any sectarian nature to the conflict.
In recent years, there have been cases where a whole Christian family
was ordered by authorities to leave their hometown to prevent
retaliation. At the same time, Christians have become more ready to
use violence as a preventive measure when they fear they will be
attacked, Bahgat said.
But uniquely in Dahshour, angry Muslims treated the entire Christian
community as the family of the accused killer and subject to
"Collective retribution is the most dangerous and most likely (form
of violence) to spread over time ... beyond the site of violence,"
Egypt´s new president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood,
didn´t comment on the violence for several days. On Friday, he
appealed to Dahshour´s Christians to return home, promising justice
against perpetrators of the violence. But, echoing the line that
Mubarak´s government always took for Muslim-Christian violence, he
denied the incident was sectarian.
"This was an individual incident and its origin is not about Muslims
and Christians, and it happens every day. It was blown out of
proportion," he said. Morsi´s spokesman denied the eviction was
The village of 15,000 is tucked between several of Egypt´s most
stunning ancient pyramids and surrounded by picturesque palm groves.
Security trucks are now deployed on its winding, unpaved narrow roads
to guard the church and empty Christian properties.
Many in the village say the Christians should not be allowed to
return until the Christian laundry worker who set fire to the Muslim
is killed. Some residents take an even harder line and say they
shouldn´t be let back at all.
The sentiments were on display even in the neighboring Muslim family
that took in Wehba to protect her in case of further reprisals.
Um Mohammed, the 65-year old matron of the household whose son was a
friend of the slain man, says Christians can come back, but only if
justice is served against the killer. "He burned my heart. He must
also be burned. It is retribution," she said.
"No Christian will return to this village again!" someone shouted
from behind Umm Mohammed. It came from a little girl wearing a strict
version of the Islamic headscarf, covering her head and much of her
torso. The girl — apparently the child of a neighbor — was quickly
shushed and hustled out of the room by the family.
"We didn´t kick them out for nothing," said Ali el-Gizawy, a 47-year
old government employee. "They betrayed our trust, and they will not
be allowed to return."
The Christians feel a mix of frustration at the incompetence of
authorities, a sense of injustice and a fear their fate may be
Kirollos Shehata, a 22-year old Coptic Christian resident, said he
hadn´t wanted to leave but finally did as his Muslim neighbors and
his own departing family members urged him to go with the others to
avoid more violence.
"Now I can´t imagine going back," he said. For him, it´s not fear of
violence but a sense that the Christians humiliated themselves by
leaving. "How would we look to the rest of the community and how will
people treat us?" He spoke on condition his current location is not
The dispute began when the laundry man, Sameh, burned the shirt of
his Muslim client, setting off an argument first with the client´s
wife and then with the client himself, according to several
residents. The argument turned violent. On July 26, an angry crowd
gathered outside Sameh´s home, and he and his family lobbed firebombs
down on them from his roof.
One man in the crowd, 27-year-old Moez Mohammed, was set aflame and
was hospitalized with severe burns.
The next two days, Mohammed´s brothers and friends went down the
village´s main Christian street, waving firebombs and threatening
violence, Shehata said. When one Christian countered that the whole
community was not to blame, a fight broke out, until it was broken up
"They said if you don´t leave the village, you will all die," Shehata
recalled. Aside from the anger over the young man´s death, there was
economic jealousy because local Christians are seen as better off, he
said. Moreover, some Islamists used the occasion to ignite deep-
seated biases against Christians and their local priest and settle
Among the Muslims, stories of Mohammed´s death circulated and grew
more gruesome in the retelling.
"His eyes were on fire," said a young boy in the house where Wehba
was a guest. "He ran like a ball of fire," said the boy´s
grandmother. Another described his skin melting. Some said Mohammed
had tried to break up the fight between Sameh and his client over the
shirt; other said saved a little girl from the fire before he caught
Meanwhile, Christian families began sending women and children out of
the village, Shehata said.
When Mohammed died on Tuesday, those still there left and police
escorted the priest out. After Mohammed´s burial in the evening,
hundreds of Muslims began attacking the homes Christians left behind
and tried to storm the church, located inside the priest´s house.
Wehba, the elderly woman who lives alone in her family home, was
forgotten in the confusion.
"She is like one of us," said Umm Mohammed, her host, adding that she
sleeps next to Wehba to reassure her. "She has no one. And she has
nothing to do with it." (© 2012 The Associated Press 08/04/12)
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