'A night of terror and fear': Coptic Christians face attacks after social media post offends local Muslims

Relatives of a man who was killed in a militant attack on Coptic Christians sit in front of their residence in Minya, Egypt June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017.Reuters

Christians face charges of inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islamic leaders, after their comments on social media caused some Muslims in their village to riot.

The social media posts of two young Coptic men from the village of Ezbat El-Sheikh Nageim in Upper Egypt have sparked protests in their village by Muslims who believe the men to have insulted Islam. According to a report by World Watch Monitor, as many as 100 protesters were initially detained for attacking Coptic-owned homes and shops, churches and injuring several Copts. 19 are still being held.

The social media posts in question date from May 2017 when 28 Copts were killed in the Minya bus attack. In response to the attack, Bassem Abdel-Malak Fahim, 25, accused some well-known Islamic leaders of inciting people to attack Christians and criticised the Egyptian government and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for opposing Islamic extremists in Libya but not those within Egypt.

Although Fahim deleted the post the next day, it was shared by his friend, Mina Younan Samuel, 25, and was seen more than three months later, on September 6, by some Muslims in the village.

Coptic villager Adel Girgis told World Watch Monitor that the post 'spread among the Muslim villagers, and all people in the village were talking about this post, saying it was an insult to Islam. They then begin to insult and threaten us while we were walking in the village streets, and hit two Copts'.

Fahim and his father sought sanctuary in Cairo while Minya security officials occupied the village between September 10 and 14 at the request of a Coptic leader, Gawargious Abdel-Saied Aziz. However, as soon as the security officials withdrew, violence again broke out.

'At 9pm, a great deal of Muslim villagers gathered and began to attack us,' said Girgis. 'The situation was very terrible for all of us. They attacked Coptic-owned homes randomly, they hurled bricks and stones at the homes, destroying the windows and doors of these homes, destroying and looting the properties'.

The targets of the attack included a church, homes, shops and vehicles on a street with only Coptic residents. Girgis said three Copts were injured in the evening's protest before the security officials were forced to return and make arrests. The arrest of up to 100 protesters was ordered, in addition to that of the two men behind the social media posts was ordered. However, having fled the village, they are yet to be detained.

One Coptic mother described the attack on her home to World Watch Monitor: 'It was around 10pm and we were sleeping when we were suddenly woken up by the sound of broken windows. They were pelting our home with bricks and stones, they were shouting 'Allahu Akbar' [Allah is the greatest].'

'We were very scared. I have two children – one of them aged two and the other aged eight months – who experienced a night of terror and fear.'

Since the protest, an attempt has been made to broker peace between the village's Muslim and Coptic residents by, the Minya governor, Essam el-Bedawi, the Minya head of security and a number of parliamentarians.

The governor urged that Egyptians should not be divided: 'There are parties whose purpose is to destabilise the security and stability of the homeland and those people will never succeed in their quest. Egypt will remain strong and proud, despite the spiteful and disloyal people. You [Christians and Muslims] should stand united against any attempt to undermine the good relations between you.'

On the same night as the meeting, Bassem Abdel-Malak Fahim also attempted to placate those his post had angered, posting an apology on his Facebook page: 'I did not mean to offend any religious or public figures, but rather terrorism and terrorists, the enemies of the homeland,' he wrote. 'I deleted that post from that date, and I did not write anything after it. I affirm my love and respect for all Christians and Muslims, and everyone in my dear country.'