All quiet on the southern front?

Qena – Except for scattered scuffles with Muslims reported by Coptic Christians, Naga Hammadi experienced a relative quiet on Friday, amid heavy security presence, two days after six Church deacons and a Muslim security guard were shot dead, and a day after violent protests in the Upper Egyptian city shattered the peace.

Al-Masry Al-Youm on Friday received phone calls from Coptic Christians stranded in villages around Naga Hammadi, which were cordoned off by security and riot police around the time of the Muslim Friday prayer, saying that they cannot get out of their homes. After Thursday, when unruliness was the highlight, it seemed that security imposed temporary curfews in areas in Naga Hammadi, including Bahgoura, the site of recent clashes. "I was going out to get cigarettes. But I was asked to go back into the house," said Sameh, a resident of Bahgour who refused to give his last name. "It looks like they’re protecting the Muslims during their prayers."

Hours later, Sameh and another Bahgoura resident Milad Farah both reported brief clashes with Muslims "who came from outside of the village," banged on doors of houses belonging to Copts and who, according to both sources, threw stones and rocks at them in the area of Ezbet Tarkas and Ezbet Kamel, in close proximity to each other, in addition to Rahmaniyah. They also torched vehicles, said Farah. In other places in town, similar brawls were reported, including by Bola Abdo, a facilitator for human rights groups who said that Muslims and Christians had clashed in a Naga Hammadi market and that police had to spray "excessive amounts of tear gas to disperse the protesters causing suffocation and breathing problems for some." Reports circulating that a Coptic man shot three Muslims in the same area remain unconfirmed. Talk across town about Muslims and Christians falling dead or wounded because of clashes are also unconfirmed. Qena’s security chief told Egyptian TV that all protests in Naga Hammadi were "peaceful" and were quickly contained.

As of time of publishing, Naga Hammadi’s General Hospital has not reported receiving any cases of slain Muslims or Christians. As well, reports claiming that two of the church deacons who were wounded in the accident have lost their lives sustaining injuries in Sohag University hospital were squashed by the sister of one of the deacons, who told Al-Masry Al-Youm on Friday afternoon that all six who are being treated in Sohag are fine. "My brother Joseph is stable and conscious, so are the rest of them. I know them all personally," said the sister who refused to give her name in fear of security retaliation.

Her brother Joseph is one of those who survived a drive-by shooting that killed six other Coptic Christians and a Muslim church guard on Christmas eve — in the absence of security despite warnings by church officials that they’ve been receiving verbal threats from Muslim extremists. Police now say they apprehended all three perpetrators of the attacks and claimed that they’re all "wanted convicts."

Joseph took bullets to his chest, left arm and pelvis, according to the sister, who said that they have gone through hell in order to transfere Joseph and his friends from the Naga Hammadi General Hospital, where they were initially taken to Sohag, which is considered better equipped to handle their cases.

"They weren’t taking care of them. They left my brother to bleed for long. They didn’t have enough blood in the blood bank," the sister said, as she waited in the hospital yard with her husband in order to be allowed to visit her brother in the Sohag University Hospital, where state security was heavily present and prosecution were questioning the deacons during the time of the interview.

"The doctors were aggressive and disgruntled and they didn’t treat us well despite of the circumstances that we were in. Imagine, my brother had a bullet close to his heart! And I had expected to come to the hospital to find him dead. And this is how they treated us." She said that she has just finished prayer in the church of Bishop Shenouda in Bahgoura when she first heard the news of the attack. "I thought to myself the moment I heard the news, ‘my brother’s gone. he’s gone’. But thank God he’s alright now."

During the interview, security officials interrupted and asked the sister not to talk to Al-Masry Al-Youm. A high-ranking state security official told Al-Masry Al-Youm that meetings with deacons are forbidden and that a special permit was needed for the interviews; other journalists and two human rights groups, including a Coptic one, were similarly turned away.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Refaat Hussein, general manager of Naga Hammadi Hospital told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the hospital did everything it could to give the deacons the medical help they needed when they were under his hospital’s care. "It’s the Christians who were in rage, burning and destroying medical equipment here and there. They went berserk and started destroying everything around them for no reason whatsoever. They scared other patients too.

"They even set a doctor’s car on fire and attacked the receptionists. They smashed in the windows and small kiosks around the hospital. They had batons and pieces of wood in their hands," he said of the families and friends of the slain and wounded deacons. Many parts of the hospital were evacuated, according to Hussein, and patients moved elsewhere.

Meanwhile, on Friday morning, police were in control of the streets in Naga Hammadi but damages to police cars reminiscent of earlier clashes could be seen, like dents and broken windows. Friday sermons preached against hatred, with the town’s biggest mosque which stood next to the diocese where Father Kirollos was based, said that killing Copts was a "catastrophe" and quoted Quran verses against killing innocents. The mosque’s Imam Sheikh Abdel-Gafar Abdel-Aal said, "How dare Muslims kill anyone else" insisting that Muslims and Christians in Naga Hammadi are one family, but that they need to "sit together, with religious, political and National Democratic Party leaders, and talk freely without considerations. I have much to say regarding what we have come to, but I will only reveal this in a conciliatory meeting," he said.

Present by the mosque was Naga Hammadi’s member of parliament Fathi Qandil who told Al-Masry Al-Youm that "no reconciliation is needed between Muslims and Christians here because they’re already reconciled. Nothing happened that warrants reconciliation. We just send them our condolences for those who died. Bring me one Christian who says he’s under attack now." When Al-Masry Al-Youm gave examples of clashes that followed the fatal attack in addition to the curfew imposed on Bahgoura, Qandil responded by saying that these are "exaggerations that these people tell the press and media." He added: "The act was committed by a hot-headed man that we all know, and that his family –very good people– have disowned."

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