The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has called on Egypt’s government to ensure the resumption of the trial of three men charged with the Christmas Eve murders of seven people in a small southern Egypt town.
Since February, court proceedings have been postponed numerous times, and USCIRF is pressing the government to ensure that Saturday’s scheduled trial go on as planned.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” remarked USCIRF chair Leonard Leo, whose agency makes policy recommendations to the U.S. president, secretary of state, and congress with respect to matters involving international religious freedom.
“Is it possible for Coptic Orthodox Christians to get justice in the Egyptian court system?” he asked.
On Jan. 6, as Coptic Christians prepared to observe Christmas Day, gunmen traveling in a car opened fire in a shopping district in the town of Nagaa Hammadi and later in front of the southern Egyptian town’s main church as worshipers emerged from midnight mass.
The shooting resulted in the deaths of six Christians and one Muslim security guard, who was assigned to protect the church.
Though police arrested three men two days later, some Coptic Christians believed the Christmas Eve attacks would go unpunished or draw light sentences, as is frequently the case.
Surprisingly, however, the Egyptian government initially decided to bring the Naga Hammadi case to trial quickly. But after eight months, there have been no convictions and, as Leo noted, “there is no end in sight.”
“Unfortunately, this only encourages further violence and is reminiscent of so many past trials where justice was never served,” he added.
Christians in Egypt and elsewhere have often criticized local authorities in Egypt for their handling of such cases, with many increasingly accusing the Egyptian State Security and other security authorities of having a hand in many of the crimes taking place against the Copts in Egypt.
Some even say the latest attack was in retaliation to the victim church's refusal to participate in government-sponsored "reconciliation sessions" after a November 2009 attack by Muslims on Coptic properties.
According to the 2009 U.S. State Department Report on Egypt, “reconciliation sessions” are commonly used by the government to deter Coptic Christians from seeking justice following sectarian attacks.
The reconciliation sessions “generally obviated the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution," the State Department noted.
In its call for action Friday, USCIRF said it has recommended that the United States more aggressively press the Egyptian government to prosecute perpetrators responsible for sectarian violence and to remove de facto responsibility for religious affairs from the state security services, with the exception of cases involving violence or the advocacy of violence.
Due to persistent and serious religious freedom concerns, Egypt remains on USCIRF’s Watch List. Egypt has been on the Watch List since 2002.