Egypt's Christians Fear Army Role

TWICE IN TWO months, Egyptian soldiers of the Second Unit army camp have sacked a100-acre Christian farm—which is also the site for a disabled children's center—owned by the Coptic Orthodox Church. On Jan. 30, hundreds of soldiers destroyed more than 600 yards of stone fence around the farm which lies 15 miles outside of Cairo. Amonth earlier, troops had destroyed three agricultural buildings and damaged the center for the disabled using bulldozers and army trucks without license plates. During the first attack, the soldiers and trucks were led by an officer in a small Fiat, with an army license plate. But on Jan. 30, the soldiers removed the plates from their vehicles, apparently to conceal their identity.

Some farm workers threw stones at the soldiers who responded in kind. Five soldiers were injured in the clashes. Other workers tried to flag down truck drivers on a nearby highway, who stopped and tried to interfere with the military to stop their destruction.

“The attacks cannot be logically explained,” said Atef Mansour Ayoub, an agronomist and one of three brothers who own the farm. “If they think we should not be there they should have brought this before the court. Secondly, it is not the business of the army to check on permits. It's the responsibility of the police.”

Mansour Ayoub also said the farm's permits had been checked and were up to date. The land is being paid for in installments by Mansour Ayoub, and his two brothers, Dr. Ragaie Nasr Mansour Ayoub and Ayoub Mansour Ayoub. All three are Christians.

Ragaie, a civil engineer, had emigrated years ago to the United States but returned to Egypt when its government called on Egyptians abroad to invest in the country of their birth. Ragaie's 19-year-old son, John, is developmentally disabled. Ragaie is a member of St. John the Beloved Organization for helping the mentally handicapped which was registered in Egypt in May 1995.

Ayoub Mansour Ayoub—who is now better known as Coptic Bishop Botros, is president of the St. John the Beloved Organization. In 1993, Bishop Botros established the Cheerful Heart Center (CHC) for mentally disabled children. The CHC had been looking after the needs of more than 50 children, both Muslims and Christians, in apartments in Cairo. But specialists believed a more rural setting would be preferable for the children and thus was born the idea to build a residence for 200 developmentally disabled people on the farm. They would help with the work under the supervision of experienced farm workers and specialists in the care of the developmentally disabled.

Before the Ayoub brothers began paying installments on the land, it had been rented from the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture by the Tiba Society for Land Reclamation, of which the Ayoub brothers are members. In November 1993, the Tiba Society obtained approval from the Department of Roads and Bridges and from the Central Military Zone (to which a nearby army camp belongs) to build the walls around the property. The Tiba Society built the walls before the Ayoub brothers agreed to buy the land. The contract of sale on the land to the brothers is dated April 1995, and since then they've made monthly payments on it. It was to be deemed their property this next April 5.

But in a Feb. 1 letter to the governor of Cairo, the Defense Minister, Major General Hussein Tantawi, wrote that the Department of Agriculture of the Cairo Governorate signed the contracts in 1995 without the permission of the military forces. The Minister wrote that “although these contracts prohibit using this land for other purposes other than cultivation, it has been observed that they have erected buildings and fences, which violates these contracts ….”

The Minister of Defense demanded that the Director of the Department of Agriculture cancel the contracts. On Feb. 16, the Ayoub brothers received an express letter from the Department of Agriculture canceling the contract. “They saw the land [being used] to help the handicapped and … saw that I was frequently visiting the project and thought I was planning to build a monastery which is absolutely not true,” Bishop Botros told the Register. “I was stunned when I read the letter canceling the contract because we got all the necessary approvals from the authorities including the decision of the Ministry of Defense that this is civil land outside the jurisdiction of the military.

“Dr. Yousef Wali, Minister of Agriculture, formed a special committee to investigate the whole matter,” the bishop added. “They visited the land Feb. 20 and did not find any disorder. They saw all the approvals previously given to the project. The committee also saw the destroyed buildings.”

During a visit to the property a few months ago, before the military raids, Bishop Botros explained enthusiastically his plans to farm the land, to bring in cows, goats, rabbits and chickens, and to build the center for the disabled. The bishop said he had received assistance from foreign organizations to fund the project and that representatives from foreign embassies and international organizations had visited the project, including Wendy Walker, spouse of the American Ambassador in Egypt.

But since the soldiers' raids, work on the project has stopped. “Some cows were killed, five-year-old olive trees were destroyed,” said Bishop Botros who estimates that damages come to more than $200,000. The Egyptian press has been mostly silent about the events. The weekly Watany mentioned it only in a one paragraph item on their front page Dec. 22. ADecember editorial entitled “Coptic Farm Being Attacked By Armed Forces” and slated for the Middle East Times was pulled before publication by the government censor, though officials rarely use its censorship prerogative. The paper nevertheless managed to publish a related story in February. “The editor told me that the Middle East Times has to be very cautious about what they publish because of the sensitivity of this subject,” said Usama el-Ahwany, the author of the two pieces.

The censoring underscores the sensitivity of the issue in Egypt. Generally speaking, the army has a very positive reputation among citizens. Engineering units of the army have frequently helped the local population when needed, most recently by rebuilding houses after the November 1994 flood that left thousands homeless. The fact that the damaged farming project is Christian-based increases the likelihood that Christians in Egypt will perceive the events as the government turning against them.

While President Hosni Mubarak has always advocated national unity between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, further aggravation of the Ayoub brothers' farm project could further put that delicate relationship in jeopardy.

Cornelius Hulsman is based in Cairo, Egypt.