Originally published under the title "Insult after Injury: Understanding Egypt's 'Reconciliation Meetings'."
Egyptian Christians in the village of Ismailia attend mass last month in the ruins of a makeshift chapel burned down earlier this year.
We often hear about Egypt's Christians being attacked by Muslim mobs. What we rarely hear about is what happens afterwards. Are the culprits imprisoned? Are the victims compensated? Do authorities take measures to help prevent such attacks from happening again?
While the acquainted reader may correctly assume no, the anatomy of what always takes place is of interest.
First, the attack itself is often based on the accusation that some Christian dared overstep his bounds, that is, he broke Islam's supremacist dhimma contract.
Christians trying to build a church, romantically involved with Muslim girls, or insulting Muhammad—all banned according to Islam—are typical violations that prompt large, armed Muslim mobs to attack all the Christians in that village (and their church if one exists) as a form of collective punishment, which is also Islamic.
Security forces take their time getting to the scene of anti-Christian mob attacks.
While the attack is in progress, the besieged Christians do the only thing they can: frantically call the local police and/or state security.
Based on private conversations with those involved, formal complaints from the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, and objective media reporting, here's what happens practically every single time:
Police and state security take their time to get to the scene, allowing the mob ample time to riot with impunity. It is not uncommon for authorities to arrive two or three hours after a mob attack commences—even when they are closely stationed.
For example, after 3,000 Muslims rose in violence against the Christians of a village near Alexandria in 2012, it took the army an hour to arrive—even though it was stationed a mere mile away: "This happens every time," said a Christian eyewitness. "They wait outside the village until the Muslims have had enough violence, then they appear" (Crucified Again, p. 175).
After the uprising has fizzled out, authorities arrive. Instead of looking for and arresting the culprits or mob ringleaders—or, as often is the case, the local imam who incites the Muslim mob against the "uppity infidels" who need to be reminded of "their place"—authorities gather the leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities together in what are termed "reconciliation meetings." During these meetings, Christians are asked to make further concessions to angry Muslims.
Authorities tell Christian leaders things like, "Yes, we understand the situation and your innocence, but the only way to create calm in the village is for X [the offending Christian and extended family, all of whom may have been beaten] to leave the village—just for now, until things calm down." Or, "Yes, we understand you need a church, but as you can see, the situation is volatile right now, so, for the time being, maybe you can walk to the church in the next town six miles away—you know, until things die down."
Christian victims are regularly placed into a room with their persecutors for a 'reconciliation meeting.'
Needless to say, things never "die down" or "return to normal." Christians who agree to banishment are seldom allowed reentry and churches rarely resume being built, for the mob will rise up again.
To be sure, when the authorities arrive to the scene of the crime, beaten and robbed Christians regularly reject the idea of being placed into a room with their persecutors in a mock reconciliation meeting that has proven time and again only to add insult to injury.
But when they rebuff the authorities' offer and demand their rights as citizens against the culprits, the authorities smile and say "okay." Then they go through the village making arrests—except that most of those whom they arrest are Christian youths. Then they tell the Christian leaders, "Well, we've made the arrests. But, just as you say so-and-so [Muslim] was involved, there are even more witnesses [Muslims] who insist your own [Christian] youths were the ones who began the violence. So, we can either arrest and prosecute them, or you can rethink our offer about having a reconciliation meeting."
Under the circumstances, dejected Christians generally agree to the further mockery. What alternative do they have? They know if they don't their youth will certainly go to prison and be tortured. In one recent incident, wounded Christians who dared fight against Muslim attackers were arrested and, despite serious injuries, held for seven hours and prevented from receiving medical attention.
This issue of reconciliation meetings is so prevalent and prevents Copts from receiving any justice that a 2009 book, titled (in translation) Traditional Reconciliation Sessions and Copts: Where the Culprit Emerges Triumphant and the Victim is Crushed, is entirely devoted to it. According to a review of the book,
In some 100 pages the book reviews how the security apparatus in Egypt chooses to 'reconcile' the culprits and the victims in crimes where churches are burned; Coptic property and homes plundered, and Copts themselves assaulted, beaten and sometimes murdered; and when even monks are not spared. Even though it stands to reason that such cases should be seen in courts of law where the culprits would be handed fair sentences, this is almost never allowed to take place. And even in the few cases which managed to find their way into the courts, the culprits were never handed fair sentences since the police invariably fell short of providing any incriminating evidence against them.
The farcical scenario of reconciliation sessions has thus without fail dominated the scene where attacks against Copts are concerned, even though these sessions proved to be nothing but a severe retreat of civil rights.
Politically speaking, the authorities aim—through the reconciliation sessions—to secure a rosy façade of the 'time-honoured['] amicable relationships between Muslims and Copts', implying that they live happily ever after. The heartbreaking outcome, however, is that the only winners in these sessions are the trouble mongers and fanatics who induce the attacks in the first place and who more often than not escape punishment and emerge victorious. The Coptic victims are left to lick their wounds.
Worse, not only are the victims denied any justice, but the aggressors are further emboldened to attack again. As Coptic Bishop Makarious of Minya recently put it in the context of discussing how Coptic Christians are now being attacked at the rate of every two or three days:
As long as the attackers are never punished, and the armed forces are portrayed as doing their duty, this will just encourage others to continue the attacks, since, even if they are arrested, they will be quickly released.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Judith Friedman Rosen fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Shillman fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.