By Tamim Elyan
CAIRO: Muslim villagers in Etfeeh ended their sit-in Thursday after a visit by a delegation of Muslim and Coptic figures calling for the return of calm to the village amid sectarian tension.
The delegation included prominent scholars Mohamed Hassan and Safwat Hegazy, as well as former Muslim Brotherhood MP Mohamed Al-Beltagy, Kefaya movement member George Ishaq and political scientist Amr Hamzawy.
They warned villagers of being used as a tool in what they called a “counter revolution” and said that Islam forbids assaults on other religions calling on villagers to abide by Islamic teachings.
They blamed “State Security and remnants of the National Democratic Party (NDP)” for the incidents in Etfeeh.
Earlier this month, a fight between members of a Muslim family — over an alleged romantic relationship between the daughter of one them and a Coptic man — left two dead, including the woman’s father. After the funeral, residents of Etfeeh village marched to the Al-Shahedayn (Two Martyrs) Church to protest the alleged relationship. They broke into the church and set it ablaze.
“What happened was one of many attempts to spoil the revolution by exploiting insignificant incidents and that is what villagers said,” said Abdel Rahman Al-Ber, professor at Al-Azhar University who was among the delegation.
He said that Muslims and Copts agreed on a statement in which they described the incident as “a conspiracy against the revolution” and demanded holding those behind it accountable.
“Hassan succeeded in convincing protesters to end their sit-in and they don’t mind rebuilding the church in the same place,” Al-Ber said.
Ammar Ali Hassan, political analyst and writer who was among the delegation, said that there have been a lot of exaggeration in the media.
“They said that there has been a Coptic exodus from the village and that they were forced out but that was untrue as most Coptic families are still in the village,” Hassan said.
He said that the church had only its front, dome and side walls destructed while the basic structure is still intact.
“The villagers don’t know who incited the Muslims to attack the church but they said that most likely it was an outsider,” he added.
Protesters claimed that they found rosters of all the village’s Muslim residents’ names inside the church.
“Senior villagers and local leaders said that the rosters are from the local governing unit and NDP candidates during the elections and that they might have been thrown inside before or during protests to trigger Muslims’ anger,” Hassan said.
Hegazy told protesters that they weren’t brought in by any party or organization and urged residents to contribute in rebuilding Egypt after the revolution and not to “fall prey” to conspiracies.
“We told Copts that it would be a shame if they were used to counter the revolution and everyone now realizes the dangers of escalation in such issues after the death of 13 people in sectarian clashes in Moqqatam and Mansheyet Nasser,” Hassan said.
Members of the delegation met with the village residents and visited Copts’ houses.
“We were told that Muslims and Copts stood together to protect each other’s houses during the absence of police and that outsiders were seen during the attacks on the church,” Al-Ber said.
Meanwhile in front of the television building, hundreds of Coptic protesters refused to end their sit-in Wednesday, adamant on having their demands met.
Protests started earlier this week following sectarian tension in Etfeeh.
Protesters said that no steps have been taken to rebuild the church. They also complained of the lack of media coverage on Coptic issues.
“All we’re hearing are promises that the church will be rebuilt in the same place and news that imprisoned priest Matieus Wahba has been released but we haven’t seen any of this,” said Milad Kamal, a protester.
“Until now the army can’t enter the village and Muslim villagers are in control of the place; we have sent people to check on the situation but they haven’t confirmed that the army is in control now,” he added.
A protester from Etfeeh said that he just came back from the village and that the army is standing three kilometers away from the church site and that people are in control.
The protesters’ demands include an official statement vowing to rebuild the church in the same location, discharging the governor of Helwan, Qadry Abu Hussein immediately and prosecuting those responsible for the destruction of the church.
Protesters expressed their anger over “repeated anti-Coptic attacks.”
“Every feast people are killed but we remained silent because we consider them martyrs but we can’t bear the destruction of our churches,” said Makram Nakhla, a protester.
“If the destruction of Etfeeh’s church goes unpunished, we will see a lot of similar incidents,” he added.
Protesting Copts blocked Sixth of October Bridge on Monday and Tuesday.
“We did it as a pressure tool and to prevent a group of Muslim Brotherhood protesters from coming although a group of us rejected the idea,” Nakhla said.
“We are Egyptians and this is our country, our religion orders us to forgive those who attack us but we would die for the sake of the church,” he added.
Protesters raised crosses and criticized Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawy.
They demanded the establishment of a civil state and cancelling the second article of the constitution that states that Islam is the official religion of the state and Sharia is the source for legislation, and issuing the unified law for building places of worship.
“Extremists are on both sides and the only way to get out of the current situation is through spreading awareness among people,” said Mina Nabil, one of the protesters.
“I refused to carry the cross and carried the Egyptian flag instead to show that I am Egyptian like we did during the revolution in Tahrir Square,” he added.
Nabil said that he saw change inside Tahrir Square but not outside because there was a main cause unifying people.
Nahla Rostom, a Muslim, joined the protesters and expressed her solidarity with their demands.
“There demands are legitimate and I support their sit-in until their demands are met like we did in Tahrir Square,” she said.
“We have been living for years side by side and have never experienced any problems,” Rostom added.