Egypt - Egitto
Photo by Eddie Adams
"Protecting my people is part of my job. This is what I am supposed to do. If you were at your house and someone was beating up your child, wouldn’t you stop him?"
The Coptic (Egyptian Christian) Church traces its roots to Saint Mark, who is believed to have established it in Alexandria in a.d. 64. Since that time, Copts have been at best grudgingly tolerated, but often persecuted outright in Egypt. Today, there are nearly ten million Copts living in Egyptian territory who face frequent harassment at the hands of state and local authorities. Bishop Wissa’s story is a visceral example of continuous oppression. On August 15, 1998, thirty-five miles north of Luxor, five Muslims from the village of el-Kosheh allegedly murdered two Christians from their community. The police investigating the case went on a rampage, and in the next two months arrested and imprisoned twelve hundred Christians. More than half of the children, women, and men arrested reported being tortured, many by beatings, whippings, and electric shock to ears and genitals. Bishop Wissa witnessed the events in el-Kosheh, his diocese, and personally interviewed over eight hundred victims. He reported the abuses to Egyptian authorities, human rights organizations, and the international community. On May 9, 1999, the interior minister dropped the investigation and authorities then arrested Wissa and charged him with defamation and other criminal offenses.
It was last summer, on August 15, 1998, that two people, both Copts, were killed and the police started investigating. They started with detentions. Fifty, sixty people a day, also Copts, were rounded up and held for weeks. Then they tortured people with all forms of violence. They coerced people to testify falsely. I heard the screams of people who were being tortured, so I went to meet the prosecutor of the state security board. I sat with him for an hour explaining all the circumstances in this village. I asked him to conduct legal investigations and to cease detaining and torturing people. But after I left nothing changed.
A week later, the police director in charge of the area arrived. I sent a bishop and two priests to meet him. They had a two-hour meeting; the first hour was very harsh. The police director told them that this area had not seen anything yet. He then realized that the priests and bishop were just as tough on their stand. He became nicer to them and he told them that a man called Michael was the murderer, that he was responsible, and said, "If I were you, I would advise him to go and turn himself in and confess." The police said that the two men who had been killed attacked Michael’s daughter, sexually raped her, and she became pregnant. And so the police started torturing all of Michael’s family, even his wife, and his youngest child. They took the boy to the desert and left the ten-year-old child there. A few weeks later the girl who had been allegedly raped by these two men came to my office. We had her medically examined and she was a virgin. So we proved that her father was not the killer.
The police then started looking for another killer. But the mass torture continued. They tortured by electricity; by applying electronic shock to sensitive areas, private parts of the body. They hung people upside down from their feet, tied them up as if they were crucified, stomped on them, hit them with sticks or whips. They would take their clothes off and throw cold water on their bodies, even on women. The torture sessions were very bad. I sent many memorandums to human rights groups even though I couldn’t explain the depth of the ugliness of the torture. On September 17, the assistant to the minister of interior visited that area called el-Kosheh. He met with all the people who were tortured, taking each case individually. One man walked in. He didn’t say anything. He just took off his clothes and showed traces of torture: whips and sticks, bruises. Then the two children, a small boy with his sister, came and described their situation. The sister, one year older than the boy, said that she was electrocuted on her chest and they both started crying.
The assistant to the minister of interior said: "All right, I know the situation now and I will tell the minister." So after that he went to the police and he released Michael Boktor and his two sons. They had spent one month and two days in prison. But to our surprise, they instead charged the cousin of one of the men who was killed. On September 18, fifteen people from the village of el-Kosheh (in the city of Sohâg five hundred miles south of Cairo) who were tortured went to the criminal prosecutor and showed him all their scars and said they wanted to press charges against the four policemen responsible. The general prosecutor of Sohâg decided to transfer them to the medical examiner and pathologist. Then the medical examiner referred two people who were in critical condition to a bigger place. But nothing happened—in spite of this overwhelming amount of evidence against the police, nobody would prosecute the government. There were many people who wanted to file complaints against the police but they backed off when they realized that no action was taken. This was an incident that stirred up a huge reaction in Egypt and among international human rights groups.
We had a lot of discussions with His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and met with the minister’s advisers, and the president’s advisers. But again, no action was taken to right the wrongs. On October 10, I, along with two other priests, was called by the criminal prosecutor for questioning. I was questioned on allegations that I coerced witnesses to change their testimonies, that I was hiding the evidence of crimes, that I was destroying the national unity of the country, and that when I preach, I preach against the government. The same five accusations were also levied against the two priests. And though the farmers reopened their case with the new attorney general, Maher Abdul-Wahed, again the inquiry was halted, with the prosecutor claiming the victims’ scars were old and no evidence linked the police to torture. Last week they finally closed the investigation of the four policemen, who were accused of torturing the twelve hundred people. Not only were the police acquitted, they were each awarded one thousand Egyptian pounds for their trouble! They were not held accountable for anything. I am sorry to say that, but this is what happened.
But why should I be scared? They can’t torture me, because I am a religious man. My only crime is to have met all these high-ranking officials, and sent memorandums to the president. I also appealed to Hafez Al Sayed Seada of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. And Hafez sent people from his organization to the village and they looked at the situation. They wrote a twenty- six-page report, which was translated into English and sent everywhere in the world. That is all I did. Why should I be scared?
I have to defend my parishioners, until the day I die. These are my children. Don’t they call me father? If you went to the Coptic churches, you would see that they are filled with people. Protecting my people is part of my job. This is what I am supposed to do. If you were at your house and someone was beating up your child, wouldn’t you stop them? Now if I see my children being tortured and screaming for help and I am quiet about it, I wouldn’t be a good person.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)