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Christian family evicted from Egypt town

By Aya Batrawy

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 21 2012 2:00 a.m. MDT

FILE -- In this May 7, 2011 file photograph, firemen fight a fire at a church surrounded by angry Muslims in the Imbaba neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt . Christians and Muslims fought in the streets of western Cairo in violence triggered by word of a mixed romance. Tribal sheiks and lawmakers agreed to reverse a decision to expel eight families from Egypt's northern province of Alexandria and allow five of the families to return to the town after clashes erupted over an alleged love affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, a rights activist said Friday.(AP Photo,File)

The Associated Press

CAIRO — Nabil Gergis, a Coptic Christian, lived for nearly two decades in the Egyptian town of Amriya, raising his children and managing a modest business. Those ties couldn't protect him after a sex video purportedly showing his brother with a Muslim woman began to circulate.

Angry residents in the conservative, Muslim-majority town held protests and set fire to the Gergis family businesses. None of the attackers was prosecuted. Instead, a committee of tribal elders, local lawmakers and security officials ordered the 11 members of the Gergis family — the brother, Nabil and others — to leave town.

The story of Amriya demonstrates one of the reasons Egypt's Coptic Christian minority and even some in the Muslim majority feel the situation is precarious, particularly since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. The rule of law, they and human rights groups say, is being eclipsed by such "reconciliation councils," trying to fill the security vacuum left by Mubarak's fall.

"There is no law that would have found me responsible for anything, and under the law I would have never been kicked out of my home," said Nabil Gergis. He said he, his wife and their two children do not know who to turn to protect their rights and that he feels the government has turned its back on them.

Egypt's Copts are mourning Pope Shenouda II, who led the Church for 40 years and died on Saturday. "Baba Shenouda," as he was called, was seen by many in the community as their biggest protector in a country where Christians make up about 10 percent of a population of 85 million.

Shenouda's approach was deeply conservative. He was a close ally of Mubarak during the former president's 29-year rule and used his influence behind the scenes to try to ensure some protections for Christians. But he largely resisted any public protests or pressure. His critics among the Coptic community say that left Christians' rights dependent on personal relations rather than enforced by law.

Reconciliation meetings were not unusual under Mubarak's regime. Muslim-Christian violence broke out occasionally in towns of the south, sometimes in local disputes that turned sectarian. Rather than prosecuting those responsible, local leaders and security officials would often insist on negotiated solutions to keep the peace — or, critics say, because they were reluctant to confront Muslims involved in the incidents.

The Amriya case was unique because the punishment was so extensive. The town is comprised of scattered villages with some 500,000 residents, about 15 percent of them are Christian.

The incident erupted in late January, when the explicit video allegedly showing Nabil Gergis' brother with a Muslim woman circulated on residents' cell phones. The brother, who is married, has denied any affair.

Any sex outside of marriage is a lightning rod for controversy in the Muslim world, where a woman's chastity is vociferously protected by her family. That a Christian man might have an affair with a Muslim woman only further fanned the flames.

The rumors sparked widespread protests by Amriya residents, who are mostly tribal and deeply traditional. Angry residents set fire to three stores owned by the Gergis' family, which were under their homes. Some Muslim residents tried to help, but were outnumbered by the ultraconservative rioters.

Police showed up hours later and instead of investigating the attack called in the brother for questioning, Gergis said.

With tempers still high, local officials and tribal leaders held a series of meetings and decided to order the expulsion of the entire Gergis family. A Muslim family who had fired shots in the air during the protest to protect their property were initially told they must leave too, but were later allowed to return.

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