The case sends a worrying signal that Egypt's new parliament is allowing a Mubarak-era system of local justice to trump the rule of law.
Kristen Chick/ The Christian Science Monitor
Ten-year-old Romany sits in the same room where his family huddled together nearly three weeks ago, afraid for their lives, as a violent mob attacked their house.
His family had fled to this room on the top floor, where pictures of Jesus and Coptic saints hang on bare cement walls. His parents dragged heavy furniture to the door, barricading it as they heard people try to break in below. The mob was throwing rocks at the windows, and he heard gunfire, says Romany. They were cursing Christians.
“We kept praying that God would be with us,” says the fourth-grader. “And He was.”
As the mob set fire to the home of a Christian family across the street, Muslim neighbors saved Romany’s family, hustling them out of their house by a back entrance, into a car, and out of the village, until it was safe enough to return.
The violence in Sharbat began as many sectarian conflicts in Egypt do – with rumors of an affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. It ended with eight Christian families forced to leave the village, their property and belongings left to be sold on their behalf by a local committee. The punishment for those who looted and burned Christian properties? None.
The decision was the outcome of a “reconciliation meeting,” in which the fate of the accused is determined by locals rather than the law. The meetings have long been used in Egypt to handle sectarian conflicts, leaving victims little recourse. Hosni Mubarak may have been ousted a year ago, but methods haven't changed. Members of Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament sat in on some of the Sharbat meetings, effectively sanctioning the use of extrajudicial means.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who wrote a report on the incident, says that political parties must set a new precedent for dealing with sectarian tensions by applying the law in this case.
“If Islamic parties, and all parties, insisted on applying the law, and don’t accept the results of these reconciliation meetings – if we do that, I think it may have a positive effect on sectarian incidents,” he says. “Because one would know if he torched or destroyed houses or shops of Christians, he will go to court and be charged.”
Refusing to stand up for justice for Christian victims in Sharbat, by contrast, could have dangerous implications for future religious strife in Egypt, which is home to the Middle East’s largest Christian population.
Sharbat is a small village near the western edge of the fertile Nile delta. Along potholed streets, hand-painted signs for the salafi Nour Party cover the cement shelters of bus stops, fences, shops, and the walls of homes.
Samir Rashad, Romany’s father, says the recent violence in Sharbat was not the first case of tension between Christians and what he calls radical Muslims there. But it was the worst. It started with rumors that a local Christian man had photos or videos showing him in a sexual relationship with a local Muslim woman.