As a security vacuum continues to plague Egypt, the country's beleaguered Christian community fears a rash of kidnappings will only worsen during the holiday season.
- By Bel TrewBel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.
MINYA, Egypt – The last thing Mamdouh Farid remembers was the butt of a rifle raised above his head. Farid, a Christian from Upper Egypt, was driving home from his job at the local village health clinic when seven gunmen surrounded his pick-up truck. One of the masked men called him a son of a dog and struck him on the back of his head, then Farid’s world went dark.
For six days, his kidnappers tortured him, keeping him blindfolded and bound in an abandoned hut. The armed gang demanded $290,000 from his family for his release. It was an impossible amount for the 58-year-old, who supports a family of nine on just $200 a month.
"They beat me with their guns while on the phone to [my family], so they could hear my screams. With the pain, I couldn’t keep myself quiet," Farid recalled.
Farid, who was abducted from the village of Hassan Basha in the governorate of Minya on Dec. 7, is only the latest victim in a rash of kidnappings that has plagued Egypt’s Christian minority since the 2011 revolution. Over 100 people have been abducted in Minya alone, and the overwhelming majority have been Christian. The kidnappings are the result of a security vacuum left by years of political upheaval. With the state doing little to protect the country’s vulnerable minorities, the Christian community has bore the brunt of the disappearance of law and order.
There has been a sharp increase in abductions following the military overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi this summer. At least 20 people were abducted amid the security breakdown that followed the bloody Aug. 14 dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Islamists.
As Christmas approaches, Minya’s Christians fear the abduction epidemic will only worsen. As families venture out to visit friends and relatives in the holiday period, they also represent prime targets for would-be kidnappers.
Farid’s kidnappers used some of the most brutal tactics yet to extract ransom money from his family. They refused to let him use the toilet, so he was forced to urinate on himself. He was given just one small piece of bread a day. He was beaten continuously. "When I asked for something to drink ,they gave me their urine in a cup," Farid said.
Farid’s wife has breast cancer and diabetes, and he supports six orphaned nieces as well as his own two sons. With no money and nothing valuable to sell, his family had to beg from relatives, neighbors, and the local church to scrape together the ransom.
The kidnappers finally realized the impoverished family could not meet their extravagant initial demand and settled on $7,300 instead.
Farid was eventually left in a garbage dump a few miles from his village.
The Christian community has already paid out an estimated $750,000 in payoffs, according to the victims, who have formed a support network and document each new abduction case. The network’s members describe being housebound and terrified during this holiday season.
"We can’t be out on the streets after dark. It has even affected our money and salaries — we’re forced to work less hours," said Medhat Aata Markos, a Christian official at the Minya office of Egypt’s Health Ministry, who was kidnapped last February.
"Everyone thinks they are next," Farid added.
As a vulnerable minority that cannot retaliate against such abuses, Christians are easy targets for kidnappers. "We are always afraid, as we’re not backed up by the government, so we rush into paying to save our relatives," said Markos, a doctor who runs a clinic in the village where Farid was kidnapped and whose family forked out $15,000 for his release.
In Egypt, crimes against the Christian community often go unpunished. Forty-three churches nationwide have been completely destroyed, and more than 200 Christian properties have been attacked by Islamists since August, according to Amnesty International, as Morsi supporters sought revenge for the government-led crackdown. Some of the worst attacks happened in Minya, and the police stood by as the buildings went up in flames.
While victims say their captors never discussed religion, local clerics see a sectarian undercurrent to the kidnappings. "All the victims were Christians in this governorate," said Father Wissa Subhi, Secretary of the Diocese of Minya’s Deir Mawas. "Not a single Muslim has had to feel unsafe because of this."
The youngest kidnapping victim from Father Subhi’s area was just eight years old, the priest recalled, and was abducted in early 2012. The kidnappers took the Christian boy from his school, shooting his father in his legs when he refused give up his child. The family eventually had to pay a $290,000 ransom to get their son back.
The police have promised they are investigating the crimes, but nearly three years after the first kidnapping, no one has been sentenced. Meanwhile, some victims are reluctant to openly blame the security forces for fear of exacerbating the situation.
"There is an inefficiency in the role of the government — but we don’t want to get into politics. We don’t want to get into trouble," said Hany Sedhom, a pharmacy owner, who was abducted in October.
Still, there are rumblings of popular discontent with the breakdown of law and order in the area. On Oct. 15, kidnapping victims staged a small protest outside the Minya Security Directorate building demanding the security forces intervene more aggressively.
"There is no effort from the government to stop this," Markos complained. "Some even suspect there might be elements of the police with the kidnappers."
Security officials, for their part, said fear in the Christian community is holding back their investigations. They said families only report the incidents after their loved ones have been returned, preventing police from tracing the criminals to their hideouts.
"The geographical nature of Minya is mountains and deserts, making it hard to track the perpetrators. But we believe very soon they will be caught and prosecuted," said Minya Security Director Osama Metwally. "In the last six months we have arrested those involved in 10 cases…. We have a very well processed methodology to reach the criminals."
But the beleaguered Christian community has little hope for justice. "We believe there is the possibility that the numbers of kidnappings will get higher and they will become more violent," Markos said.
That certainly appears to be the trend. In early November, Gaber, a man in his forties from the same area, was shot dead by his kidnappers after he resisted abduction. "They tried to shoot him in the leg to demobilize him, but the bullet went through his back and bladder. He bled to death," Sedhom said.
And as the kidnappings continue, it is becoming increasingly hard on the Christian community to foot the bill.
"I’m afraid that there will be a time where people cannot borrow any more money for the ransom," Markos said, "as they will have all been kidnapped."