Nader Shukry


The church bells of St Samaan al-Kharraz, St Simon the Tanner’s monastery in Muqqattam hill overlooking Cairo chimed joyfully in the first hours of last Wednesday to herald the release of the seven Copts who had been detained by the State Security Investigation (SSI) apparatus since 30 September.

At around 1:00am all seven arrived at the monastery grounds accompanied by Father Samaan, head priest of the monastery churches. Even though termed a monastery, St Samaan’s is practically a compound of churches hewn out of the limestone rocks of the Muqqattam hill, and its congregation is composed of, in the major part, Cairo’s garbage collectors.

The church bells of St Samaan al-Kharraz, St Simon the Tanner’s monastery in Muqqattam hill overlooking Cairo chimed joyfully in the first hours of last Wednesday to herald the release of the seven Copts who had been detained by the State Security Investigation (SSI) apparatus since 30 September. At around 1:00am all seven arrived at the monastery grounds accompanied by Father Samaan, head priest of the monastery churches. Even though termed a monastery, St Samaan’s is practically a compound of churches hewn out of the limestone rocks of the Muqqattam hill, and its congregation is composed of, in the major part, Cairo’s garbage collectors.  

Dimiana’s story
Maher and Botrous Makram from the village of al-Nazla in Fayoum 100km southeast Cairo, accompanied by their relative Shehata Girgis Shehata and four other men who serve at the Muqqattam monastery were arrested on 29 September while they were trying to meet Dimiana, the Makrams’ 23-year-old sister who had disappeared last July. Back then they reported her missing, upon which they were informed by the police that she had converted to Islam and married one Mohamed al-Sayed Zaki, and nothing more was heard of her. Last September, the family was contacted by a man called Mohamed Abdel-Alim who claimed he could guide to Dimiana’s whereabouts in exchange for LE100,000. After some haggling he agreed to LE20,000 when he found the family was incapable of more. LE5,000 were paid directly against a receipt, and LE15,000 were pledged once Dimiana was retrieved. The Cairo address at which she was to be collected lay in the service area of Muqqattam monastery, so the Makram brothers and Shehata asked Father Samaan for help. It was thus that the four Muqqattam men Nimr Khalaf, William Abdel-Malek, Ishaq Aziz, and Tadros Badie accompanied the Makrams and Shehata to the assigned address, where they were arrested and charged with intended abduction and murder. Even though the prosecution dropped all the charges against them and ordered them released the following day, they were detained by the SSI and sent to Borg al-Arab prison near Alexandria.

No yielding to oppression
Thousands of Copts staged a sit-in and demonstrated at St Samaan’s to protest the detention of the seven men and demand their release. MPs Heidar Boghdadi and Mohamed Ragab joined Father Samaan’s efforts to have the men released, contacting top officials—up to the presidency—in the process. After several postponements, the seven men were freed last Wednesday.
Father Samaan led the congregation in an ardent prayer of thanksgiving, saying God had responded to the prayers and fast of Muqqattam’s Copts. MP Boghdadi, who had staunchly supported the Muqattam people throughout the crisis, said that these people had indeed worked a miracle by refusing to give up their rights or yield to oppression. The seven men, he said, were released a fortnight following their arrest which, according to the emergency law, could only have been contested 30 days later.

Only through the president
Father Botrous, another priest at Muqqattam, noted that the detainees had been severely wronged, their only crime having been a persistence in exercising their rights. For this, he said, they were humiliated, imprisoned, abused, and threatened. It took an appeal to President Mubarak to have them freed. Can Copts only attain their rights in their homeland through presidential intervention? he asked. He joined countless others when he demanded a fair, humane handling of cases of disappearance of Coptic women, in line with the principles of equality and full citizenship and human rights for all.
Watani talked to Maher Makram. “When my sister disappeared last July, he said, and we were informed she had married and converted to Islam, we were not allowed to see or contact her. We thus felt she must have been abducted, but there was nothing we could do, even though we did try to find out where she could be. Then along came Mohamed Abdel-Alim and haggled with us over a sum of money to tell us of her whereabouts. We headed, together with the other men, to the address he gave us, which lay in an overcrowded popular district with no street signs or house numbers. When we asked for Zaki’s house it turned out everyone in the street knew about our sister and they told us ‘She came of her own accord.’ I said all we wanted was to be assured of that; once we could hear her say so, she was free to do as she wished. One of the neighbours helped me get into contact with Dimiana over my cell phone. I told her not to worry about any maltreatment if she wished to come back; not a hair of her head will be touched. She broke down and cried saying: ‘O my brother I am lost. Leave me alone; I’m no good now.’ At that point I could hear her husband shouting, and she said: ‘Let me talk to my brother’ but the connection was cut.

Police
“It was obvious to us our sister was being kept against her will, Makram continued, so we decided to report to the police. As we turned to go we found a policeman heading towards us. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked. ‘To the police station,’ I answered. ‘Well, the police station has come to you,’ he said. Upon which the police officer of Marg police station arrived, and ordered his men to beat us up with sticks and clubs, amid the amazement of all around us. We were taken to the police station where there were several high ranking officers to question us as though we were terrorists. We were searched, beaten, and abused in filthy language. Then Mohamed Zaki came in looking as though he were the Great Victorious. He looked at me and said: ‘I’ll teach you how to tow the line, or else leave the whole country.’ I could hear my sister crying incessantly outside, and was not allowed even to see her. Is it a crime in this country for a man to meet his sister?
“The following day we were brought before the prosecution. At first we were not allowed to answer the questions we were asked; they wrote down the answers they saw fit. We were charged with intended murder and were required to admit that some knives they had brought in belonged to us. But then the head of the prosecution came in and heard our case out in a very respectable manner. He dropped all the charges and ordered our release.”

In prison
Botrous Makram took over from his brother and continued the story. “We were directly re-arrested and placed in a tiny room. We had to pay anywhere between LE30 and LE45 every time any of us needed to go to the toilet. Six days later we were moved to Borg al-Arab prison where we were ordered to take off our clothes and left to spend the night on the chilly floor in our underwear. The following day however, Captain Mohamed Shafiq came in, talked to us kindly, provided us with clothes, and treated us with respect. But we were not allowed to leave our cell, even thought the other prisoners were allowed out from 9:00am to 5:00pm.
“The day we were released we were taken over to the SSI office. Our heads were hooded and we were brutally beaten and humiliated with the filthiest abuse, and threatened.”
Aziz, Khalaf, and Badie had similar stories to tell. Shahata summed it all up in a few words: “We went out to look for a sister and ended up being treated as criminals. We have been persecuted and oppressed in our own homeland.”


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