(ADDS COMMENTS PROFESSOR, BACKGROUND)
By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)– Three suspects in a drive-by shooting in front of a church that killed six Coptic Christians and a Muslim policeman in southern Egypt surrendered to police, but Christian organizations urged authorities to do more to end “inter-faith tensions.”
Egyptian police said the alleged gunmen were taken into custody after they surrounded the area around the city of Nag Hamadi where the shooting took place Wednesday, January 6, and closed all possible routes of escape.
The killings happened on Coptic Christmas Eve when a gunman, accompanied by two others, fired on Christians in a shopping area in Nag Hamadi killing two, then went to Virgin Mary Church and shot five more, including the church’s Muslim guard, witnesses and police said. Another nine Copts — Egyptian Christians — were wounded, the interior ministry said.
Friday’s surrender of suspects came also hours after police used teargas and fired into the air to disperse Coptic Christians protesting the shooting Thursday, January 7.
Police clashed with over 1,000 people in front of the church, according to eye witnesses. Protesters reportedly also smashed windows of two shops owned by Muslims before police herded the crowd into the church grounds.
The priest of the church where the incident happened said the shooting was sectarian, and he blamed police for failing to prevent it. “This accident is a result of hard feelings between Muslims and Christians over the last month after the rumour of a rape of a Muslim woman by a Christian man,” Father Corolos told reporters.
“There should have been more security provided to churches on this particular day, when many Christians gather to celebrate the holiday.”
Nag Hamadi, which is also spelled as Hagaa Hamady, has a large Coptic population and is about 60 km (40 miles) north of the tourist and archaeological center of Luxor.
A similar incident occurred in April 2009 when Muslims opened fire on worshipers as they left the prayer service on Easter Eve in the village of Higaza in the Qena Governorate area resulting in the death of Amir Stephanos, 36, and Ayub Said, 22, Christians said. Mina Samir, 35, was reportedly injured.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a major advocacy group, said it feared more attacks against Christians.
“Unless the Egyptian Government tackles the structural and social basis of inter-faith tensions and seeks to promote a culture of tolerance and equality, rooted in a consistent application of the law, Egypt will continue to suffer from damaging communal violence and further loss of life,” said CSW’s Advocacy Director Alexa Papadouris.
“These killings were needless and avoidable. For too long, outbreaks of violence targeting Christians in the country have been dismissed as ‘sporadic’ and given inadequate attention by Egyptian authorities,” the official added.
Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University of Cairo, said the region of Upper Egypt where Nag Hamadi is located has a tribal culture and that the crime, or violence, or even sex can often take on a sectarian nature.
“In upper Egypt, in particular, they have a tribal culture of honor killing and shame. In many instances you hear about, you will find either somebody had sexual relations with a Muslim or Christian and then the family learned about it,” he told the Voice of America (VOA) network. “If you remove the issue about religion, there could be violence,” Sadek added.
“But when you add the different religious factor here, this can lead to sectarian violence, because there is a popular belief in many parts of the Middle East that every sect is trying to use sex to dominate and invade and embarrass the other sect.”
Sadek believes the crime will take on an added political coloring in Egypt, because of the fact that it occurred on a high religious holiday. “The picking of the date…the Eastern church’s Christmas, of course…will carry political and sectarian messages and it can lead to a lot of tension between the communities in Egypt.”
Coptic Christans comprise up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, according to church estimates.