Judicial bias against Christians remains strong in Egypt. On May 21 a judge sentenced 12 Coptic Christians to life in prison for their alleged part in a riot in Abu-Qurgas village, Minya Province, which left two Muslims and one Christian dead. All eight Muslims charged with the same crimes in the same riot were acquitted. Compass Direct News reports that the ruling shocked even Copts accustomed to biased and brutal legal judgments.
The details surrounding the riot that resulted in the deaths and subsequent imprisonments are unclear. According to sources, last year, on April 18, 2011, Alaa’ Rushdy, a wealthy Coptic Christian lawyer in Abu-Qurgas, had placed a speed bump in front of his house. A minibus driver, angered by it, got into an altercation with the security guards posted at Rushdy’s home. Although many of the particulars about the start of the ensuing riot cannot be confirmed conclusively, Compass reports that multiple Egyptian news outlets stated that either Rushdy’s guards or others at his house armed themselves at the sight of a gathering Muslim throng and began shooting in order to prevent an attack on their village. Reports agreed that Muslims then swept through Abu-Qurgas village, leaving dozens of Coptic homes and businesses in ashes. There were no reports of any damage to Muslim-owned homes. Two Muslim men and one elderly Christian woman were killed.
In all, 20 men, 12 Christians and eight Muslims, were arrested and charged with multiple crimes, including murder, disturbing the peace, inciting “sectarian strife,” arson and possession of unlicensed firearms. All of the Coptic Christian defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. All of the Muslim defendants were released.
Athanasious Williams, a Coptic Christian human rights lawyer in Egypt and a leader in the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said that the trial was completely unjust, but that injustice in the courts toward Christians is normal in Egypt. “There is a history of unfair trials against the Christians when Muslims attack them,” Williams said. “So the court is seen as being unfair.”
However, a rare verdict in the case of a Muslim who killed a Christian held out some hope for Copts. On May 14 an Egyptian court upheld a death sentence against Amir Ashour Abd al Zaher, a police officer who boarded a train in 2011, attacked a group of Christians and shot one dead. Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani newspaper in Cairo, said the ruling went against “an unwritten rule” that judges cannot give the death penalty to a Muslim who kills a Christian. “It is very rare. For many of us, the ruling came as a good surprise,” she said. “Most of us expected he would be declared mentally deranged.”
The evidence against him was overwhelming. According to witnesses, on the afternoon of January 11, 2011, al Zaher, 29, a police officer posted in the province of Minya, boarded a train, began shouting “God is great” and opened fire on six Coptic Christians.
Later in court, when the case when to trail, al Zaher claimed that he wanted to sit in an empty seat next to Fathy Mousaad’s daughter. When Mousaad refused to let him sit there, the two got into an argument that ended with the Muslim pulling out his pistol and opening fire. After killing Mousaad with a shot to the chest, he turned his pistol on others, wounding five, all Copts. According to witnesses, al Zaher identified his victims by their lack of head coverings.
A judge in Upper Egypt sentenced al Zaher to death, a sentence that had to be approved by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a state appointed Muslim leader. No execution date has been set.
“Despite this ray of hope for Egyptian Christians, the majority of judgments demonstrate a clear bias and may be a portent of the things to come for Christians in Egypt,” said rights attorney Williams, “persecution of Christians will continue in Egypt; the question is how bad will it be?”
Father, we lift up our brothers and sisters in Egypt who daily face the fear of injustice, of being accused wrongly of breaking the law, of being treated differently than their Muslim neighbors. We pray Your protection over them and we pray that their testimony would be powerful as others see their godly behavior even in the midst of injustice. We pray that the hearts of more judges would be softened to bring about judgments that are lawful and fair. We pray that Your true justice would one day rule in this land and that the light of the gospel would draw a great multitude to worship and serve You. In the name of Jesus our only sure sense of hope, Amen.