Cablegate: Upper Egypt Sectarian Attack

DE RUEHEG #0059/01 0111205
P 111205Z JAN 10 ZDK

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 CAIRO 000059



E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/11/2030

CAIRO 00000059 001.3 OF 002

Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission Matthew Tueller for reason 1.4(a) and (d).

1. Key Points: -- (SBU) On January 7, gunmen armed with automatic weapons fired on Coptic Orthodox Christians as they were leaving Christmas Mass at the Mar Johanna (Saint John's) Church in Naga Hamadi, Qena Governorate, in Upper Egypt. Six Copts and one Muslim police officer guarding the church died in the attack. Nine Copts were wounded, some critically, and there are unconfirmed rumors that one later died. -- (SBU) On January 8, Egypt's Ministry of Interior (MoI) announced that three suspects - local Muslims - had been arrested and that Egypt's chief prosecutor, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, had traveled to Naga Hamadi to oversee the investigation. The MoI attributed the attack to retaliation for the alleged rape in late November of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man. -- (SBU) Throughout the day on January 8, Coptic protesters clashed with security forces in Naga Hamadi. Protests continued throughout the night and Muslims fought with Coptic protesters and attacked Christian homes and businesses in nearby villages. -- (SBU) Clashes were especially violent in the village of Bagorah, where a number of shops, some owned by Muslims, others by Christians, were set on fire. A number of Copt-owned houses were attacked, and a 70 year old Coptic woman died during an arson attack on her house. -- (SBU) While the situation remains tense, there were no reports of further violence on January 9 or 10.

2. (C) Comment: The attack on Coptic church-goers in Naga Hamadi is the worst incident of sectarian violence since January 2000, when attacks on Coptic homes and farms near Kosheh, another small city in Upper Egypt, resulted in the deaths of 20 Copts and one Muslim. Egypt's MoI and some local commentators described the Naga Hamadi attack as criminal in nature, attempted to link it to the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, and emphasized Upper Egypt's culture of revenge and vendetta. Despite this characterization, an attack on church-goers on one of the most significant days on the Coptic calendar is clearly sectarian. Copts have complained bitterly in recent years about the GoE's failure to use the criminal justice system to deal with sectarian attacks - including the Kosheh incident, which resulted in no convictions. While the GoE quickly arrested the presumed perpetrators of the Naga Hamadi attack, the Coptic community is demanding GoE follow-through, including investigating to determine if anyone put the three suspects, generally described as local "thugs," up to the crime. It is not encouraging that the GoE - especially senior leadership - has so far failed to openly discuss and condemn the attack for what it was, a sectarian attack on Egypt's Christian minority. End comment. --------------------------------------------- The Christmas Eve Attack and Possible Motives ---------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) According to local media and Embassy contacts in Naga Hamadi, the attack began around 11:30 PM on January 7th, shortly after Christmas eve mass concluded at Mar Johanna Church - the headquarters of Naga Hamodi's senior Coptic cleric, Bishop Kyrolis. Three men in a car opened fire with automatic weapons on Copts gathered in a commercial area approximately 100 meters from the church. The attackers then drove towards the church and fired on other Copts. Six Copts - young men between ages 16 and 25 - died, as did a Muslim police officer assigned to guard the church. Nine Copts were wounded, some critically. (Note: We have been unable to confirm widespread rumors that one of the wounded Copts subsequently died. End note.) The attackers drove off and fired on a Coptic monastery as they were leaving Naga Hamadi, apparently without inflicting further casualties.

4. (SBU) Soon after the attack, the MoI announced that it had identified three suspects (Mohamed Ahmed Hassan "Hamam" Al Kamouny, Hedawy Al Sayed Mohamed Hassan, and Kourashy Abou Hagag Mohamed Aly) and attributed the attack to retaliation for the alleged rape of a 12 year old Muslim girl by a Coptic man in late November in the nearby town of Farshoot. (Note: The suspect in the rape case was quickly arrested and remains in custody. Local human rights NGOs report that the charges against him are legitimate and he is scheduled to be tried later this month. The alleged rape sparked several days of CAIRO 00000059 002.2 OF 002 anti-Copt rioting by Muslims, resulting in the looting and destruction of approximately 20 Copt-owned businesses. In the aftermath of the rioting, police arrested approximately 70 Muslims, seven of whom reportedly remain in custody. End note.) On January 8th, the MoI announced that it had arrested the suspects.

5. (SBU) Bishop Kyrolis - as well as media commentators - immediately questioned the MoI's claim that the church attack was in revenge for the November rape, noting that suspect Hamam Al Kaouny - thought by local residents to have been the leader of the attackers - was not related to the alleged victim and that the rape occurred nearly two months ago. While the attackers' motives remain unclear, Embassy contacts in Naga Hamadi reported wide-spread rumors that Kaouny's wife had given birth to a still-born child several weeks before the attack and that he blamed and vowed revenge on Coptic doctors. Bishop Kyrolis also criticized security forces for failing to provide adequate security for the church, and said he and other Copts had recently received death threats. ------------------- Subsequent Violence -------------------

6. (SBU) Coptic demonstrators clashed with police throughout the day on January 8, protesting inadequate security, with the local governor, a Copt, a focus of their anger. Some Muslim owned businesses were damaged, and there were a few reports of Copts attacking Muslims after Friday prayers. The protests escalated into clashes between Copts and Muslims. While the GoE reported that it had sent thousands of additional security personnel to the area, police had difficulty controlling the violence, especially in outlying areas. In the nearby village of Bagorah, four Muslim-owned stores were set on fire, as were five houses owned by Copts. Alice Kostantin Michal, a 70 year old Coptic woman died during an attack on her home, although a local health official apparently claimed that "panic,' not the attack, caused her death. Security forces detained 14 Muslims and 28 Copts. ------------ GOE Response ------------

7. (SBU) The GoE's statements so far have been limited to factual reports from the MoI and remarks by Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al Azhar and Egypt's senior Muslim cleric, describing the attack as a criminal act that "would not disrupt national unity." Safwat Al Sherif, speaker of Egypt's Shura Council, speaking on behalf of the council, expressed his condolences and called on religious leaders to work together to enhance "national unity." The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights announced that it had sent a team to Naga Hamadi to investigate.

8. (SBU) The GoE also announced that Public Prosecutor Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, Egypt's chief prosecutor, had traveled to Naga Hamadi to personally oversee the investigation. On January 10, the Public Prosecutor announced that the suspects had been charged with premeditated murder and a variety of other charges including terrorism related offenses.

9. (C) Embassy Economic-Political Minister Counselor spoke to Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights Wael Aboul Magd on January 9 regarding on-going violence and the need for enhanced security protection, especially for the Coptic minority. Aboul Magd said the GoE had sent additional security forces to the area and was working to control the situation. In a conversation on January 11, Aboul Magd confirmed that the Public Prosecutor had filed charges against the three suspects. SCOBEY

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