The trial of three Muslim men accused of killing seven Coptic Christians outside a church in Egypt opened Saturday with “not guilty” pleas but was adjourned for five weeks.
After the three men – Hammam al-Qomy, Oreshi Abul Hagag and Hindawi Sayed Hassan – pleaded “not guilty” to the charges of "premeditated murder, putting the life of citizens in danger and damage to public and private property," the judge at the emergency security court in the southern Egyptian city of Qena adjourned the trial until March 20.
According to Middle Eastern news network Al Jazeera, the trial was adjourned to give defense lawyers time to read through case documents and come up with their requests in light of the men's recent claims of innocence.
Though the accused initially confessed to the shooting in front of the main church of the town of Nag Hamadi, al-Qomy – the main suspect in the killing – reportedly told the judge otherwise.
“Police know that I am innocent and who the real perpetrators are," al-Qomy said, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The other two have reportedly made similar claims.
"The accused have insisted that they have done nothing wrong and that they did not do that drive-by shooting,” noted Al Jazeera's on-site reporter Amr El-Kahky.
“If that's right, that will arouse questions on who is behind the attack on Egypt's Christian minority here,” the reporter added.
On Jan. 6, as Coptic Christians prepared to observe Christmas Day, gunmen traveling in a car opened fire in a shopping district in Nagaa Hammadi and later in front of the southern Egyptian town’s main church as worshipers emerged from mass.
Initial reports claimed that at least five Coptic Christians died from the shooting and at least seven others injured. The figures were later updated to include two more deaths and three more injuries, including a Muslim police officer.
According to an eyewitness of the drive-by shooting, most of those killed were young men in their 20s. Among those reportedly killed was a young man and his fiancé and a 14-year-old boy, an eyewitness told the Middle East Christian Association.
Two days after the shooting, al-Qomy and the others were arrested after police found them hiding in a farm field near the place where they found the car used in the attack.
Local sources say the accused gunmen’s intended target was Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hammadi Diocese, who had publicly defended Coptic Christians after a Muslim riot in November 2009. Kirollos had received a death threat prior to the Jan. 6 shooting.
“I was the one intended to be assassinated by this plot, and when it failed the criminals turned round and started shooting and finishing off the young ones,” Kirollos told MECA in an aired interview.
Despite the still-present threat to his life, Kirollos has continued to publicly denounce how security forces handle violence against the Coptic Christian minority.
Not long after the shooting, Kirollos criticized security forces of negligence, saying that they were not present until after the fatal incident.
Other Coptic Christians in the country have also voiced their protest over the lack of protection from Muslim violence.
Some Coptic Christians have also criticized local authorities for allowing such attacks on them to go unpunished or draw only light sentences.
Despite their sizeable number in the country, the Christian community in Egypt, which consists of mostly Coptic Christians, are marginalized in society and reportedly suffer from violent forms of abuse. They also lack fair representation in the government, leading to further abuse of the minority group.
According to Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the “religion of the state” and the country's “principle source of legislation.”
Egypt’s Christian population, meanwhile, is small, making up eight to 12 percent of the overall population. Still, the Christian community there stands as the largest in the Middle East and is also among the oldest.
In light of recent events, Christians around the world have been encouraged to join the Coptic Christian community in a day of prayer and remembrance on Feb. 14 – the Sunday closest to the traditional 40-day memorial following a death.
The observance has been dubbed the "Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Coptic Martyrs of Nag Hammadi."