National Council for Human Rights (NCHR)
To investigate reports circulating through the media about the events occurring in Awlad Khalaf, Sohag, in June 2011.
Conducting site visits and interviews with residents of Awlad Khalaf. The fact-finding process began on June 27, 2011.
Khaled Marouf, Sharif al-Sharif, and Muhammad Abdel Moneim, with assistance from members of the NCHR branch in Sohag and the Justice for Development and Human Rights Foundation.
The fact-finding committee’s report begins with background information about Awlad Khalaf, a village of 30,000 in Dar al-Salam, Sohag. It notes that although Awlad Khalaf is only three percent Christian, it borders al-Kosheh, a much larger, Christian-majority town, which experienced several sectarian conflicts in 1999 and 2000. The report then recounts the events of June 25, 2011, based mostly on witness testimony.
- Per the report, on June 25, 2011, a large crowd of villagers gathered to watch the demolition of a building belonging to Wahib Shawqi Atiyya, a wealthy Christian, by the city council. Shawqi had reportedly received a license to build a 90-square-meter building on his 500-square-meter property; he reportedly violated this license by constructing a 450-square-meter building with reinforced foundations and columns.
- Several of the Muslims in the community, fearing that Shawqi was building a church, complained to the city council; the council then issued an order to cease construction. Shawqi ignored the order and completed the building three days later by constructing during the night; thereafter, the city council demolished the structure.
- In an effort to disperse the crowd, which—according to several Christian witnesses—began to threaten to damage other Christian property before the demolition was completed, Shawqi’s cousin Ihab Naim fired shots from the top of his house adjacent to the demolition site. Shawqi joined in, firing shots as well, and three Muslims were wounded.
- In response, per the account of the assistant interior minister for security in Sohag, the crowd, composed almost entirely of youth, began to burn and loot Christian houses. According to the fact-finding committee, police intervention and assistance from Muslims, many of whom protected their Christian neighbors from the mob, brought the situation under control. Police arrested several Muslims on charges of arson and theft, and Naim and Shawqi on charges of unlawful possession and use of firearms.
All of the interviews featured by the fact-finding committee’s report emphasize the good relations between Muslims and Christians in Awlad Khalaf, focusing particularly on how Muslims came to the defense of their Christian neighbors during the incident. However, according to one Muslim witness, six months prior to the violence, tensions between the two groups had escalated over what he described as the church “luring” a Muslim woman. Furthermore, several Muslim witnesses claimed that since the Christians were being protected by Muslims, it must have been the Christians who set fire to their own homes.
The fact-finding committee’s report concludes with several findings and suggestions.
- determines that the violence on June 25, 2011, was not sectarian, and that the overall situation between Muslims and Christians is peaceful in the village; concludes that the security forces conducted themselves well and responded adequately to the crisis; and
- lists the two main causes of the incident to be tensions caused by the apparent construction of a “church” in the village and the failure of the national government to pass a law clarifying the “role of religion.”
The report recommends:
- promulgating a law regarding the “role of religion” by the parliament;
- pushing the media to report more objectively on disputes between Christians and Muslims, as well as teaching journalists to not exacerbate sectarian tensions;
- asserting the rule of law and emphasizing the common identity of Egyptians in cases of sectarian conflict; and
- promoting the positive aspects of the story that unfolded in Awlad Khalaf, particularly the defense of Christians by their Muslim neighbors.
It also calls for independent organizations and political movements to affirm the common identity of Egyptian citizens, focusing particularly on rural villages and areas with histories of conflict.
The fact-finding committee’s report on Awlad Khalaf provides some creative recommendations and findings; however, these recommendations are undermined by the ambiguity of the report’s presentation of information, which is compounded by spelling errors and poor writing. Further, the report, similar to other NCHR reports, seems eager to dismiss any sectarian undertones and motivations behind the events in Awlad Khalaf, despite clear indications of at least some form of religious tension. For example, several of the witnesses interviewed by the fact-finding committee expressed that one of the main reasons for the Muslims’ anger was their suspicion that Shawqi was building a church. Furthermore, the tensions that arose six months prior, which were allegedly caused by what witnesses described as the church “luring” in a Muslim girl, as well as the stark differences between the narrative present in the testimony of Christian and Muslim witnesses do suggest that sectarianism may have played a significant role in the events at hand. On the recommendation-side, the report prioritizes promoting a common national identity over structural and legal reform to address sectarianism. The report also fails to establish key contextual details. The committee does not, for example, determine whether Shawqi was truly building a church or simply an illegal structure. The report also fails to take into account the difficulty of obtaining a license to build a church at the time in Egypt.
This incident was also covered by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; in its report, it identifies the owner of the building as Wahba Halim Atiya Boqtor and describes a reconciliation session held on July 2 in the presence of governorate leaders and security bodies. Media sources covering the incident reported that a team from the public prosecutor’s office visited the village, but that Muslims and Christians dropped charges filed in the prosecutor’s office in exchange for securing the release of arrested individuals. A report in al-Masry al-Youm references the sectarian nature of the event.
The full text of the report is available in Arabic here.