In a speech Thursday, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated there have been recent attempts to create rifts among Egyptians and destroy national unity, in reference to a series of incidents of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt.
“We are 90 million, if we see an incident every day, or even a number of incidents, and react subjectively to it, it won’t be in the interests of the country,” the president said during a commencement ceremony for recent graduates of the Military Academy.
The southern city of Minya recently witnessed a number of sectarian attacks against Copts, raising concerns about discrimination against the Coptic community and the state’s inability to confront growing sectarianism.
“We are all partners in this country,” Sisi added, asserting that it is inappropriate to distinguish between Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Christians. The president’s speech was received with strong applause from the audience, including by Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who attended the ceremony.
“A change in our norms and habits will take time. There is the state of law — whoever commits a mistake will be accountable for it, starting with the president,” Sisi said.
In the latest incident, a cousin of a priest was killed and three others were injured in the Minya village of Tahna al-Gabal in a fight that escalated quickly and took a sectarian turn, according to a statement by the Minya Archbishopric. A week earlier, a mob attacked and burned the houses of five Copts in the Abu Yaacoub village after they heard a rumor that a church was going to be built there.
Last week eight defendants accused of rioting and violence in connection to a sectarian incident — in which an elderly Coptic Christian woman was stripped and assaulted in Minya — were released.
Critics and church officials have criticized an evident inability on the part of authorities to implement the law effectively, with Minya Bishop Makaryous saying families are pressured to accept customary arbitration and perpetrators are not brought to justice.
Minya’s church officials have demanded a swift application of the law and the arrest of all those involved in the violence. The church has vocalized its reluctance to engage in customary arbitration sessions, which commonly end in forced reconciliation agreements that discriminate against Coptic minorities.
“A security official called me and I asked them to bring [the perpetrators] to justice. He said they had been arrested and later released,” Makaryous said.
On Thursday, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) stated that a fact-finding committee was sent to Minya to investigate recent incidents of sectarian violence. The NCHR delegation said that, on average, 10 incidents of this nature occur every month in the southern governorate.
The committee found that sectarian violence is often due to social issues or disagreements over building churches, noting that state institutions largely resort to customary arbitration to contain the violence. Such incidents, NCHR explained, usually end in favor of the stronger parties and in many cases, Coptic families are forcibly evicted from their homes.
The council reiterated the need to ensure equality when it comes to the treatment of citizens of religious minorities. It said it will send a detailed memo with latest findings to President Sisi and state institutions.
A 2015 study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) documenting 45 cases of sectarian violence in Egypt indicates that customary arbitration, commonly spearheaded by the state’s security apparatus, usually leads to the rights of citizens being violated.