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EGYPTIAN Christians have been subjected to horrific crucifixion rituals, raped and tortured by the security forces during a crackdown on the ancient Coptic community, according to international human rights and Christian groups.Hundreds of Copts have been rounded up in southern Egypt after suspected retaliatory killings involving local Muslims and Christians.
Apart from the crucifixions, teenage girls have been raped and babies as young as three months savagely beaten.Most Copts are too frightened to speak about their plight. But the local bishop and two priests are now facing the death penalty for bringing the persecution to the attention of the world.
To the embarrassment of President Hosni Mubarak, whose government is attempting to win back tourists after last year's Luxor massacre by Islamic militants, 29 American Congressman have now written to him to demand an end to the torture.
The Egyptian embassy in London refused to comment last week. However, over the past month, police have reportedly detained about 1,200 Christians in Al-Kosheh, near Luxor in Upper Egypt. Seized in groups of 50 at a time, many were nailed to crosses or manacled to doors with their legs tied together, then beaten and tortured with electric shocks to their genitals, while police denounced them as "infidels".
An 11-year-old boy, Romani Boctor, was hung upside down from an electric ceiling fan and tortured as the fan rotated. Young girls were raped and mothers were forced to lay their babies on the floor of police stations and watch police beat them with sticks.
Bishop Anba Wissa, the local head of the Coptic Church, said: "It was horrific - entire families were severely beaten and tortured, and some of the children will be scarred for life. When I protested to the regional police chief, he said 'you haven't seen anything yet'." The bishop and two priests were detained last week by police and charged on five counts including "using religion for the purpose of inciting strife and damaging national unity", charges punishable by death or life imprisonment.
The Al-Kosheh crackdown followed the murders of two Christians, allegedly by Muslims seeking revenge for the poisoning of one of their brothers, although doctors had recorded his death as due to natural causes. Rather than investigate, Bishop Wissa said, police simply rounded up Christians, apparently to avoid a clash between religious communities in the town which has 35,000 Christians and 15,000 Muslims.Although Coptic Christians make up six per cent of the population of Egypt and their numbers include the former United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, the government refuses to recognise them as an official minority and they have suffered persecution for years from Islamic extremists.
This latest incident is the first time that the police have been the perpetrators and the Coptic community fears it may be the sign of worse to come. It follows the closure in July of a Coptic church in the Maadi suburb of Cairo, which was surrounded by seven armoured vehicles as its doors and windows were sealed by security forces.Although President Mubarak portrays himself as a moderate, human rights activists believe that the police action reflects a wider infiltration of Islamic extremists into senior official positions. Joseph Assad, a project co-ordinator with Freedom House, the Washington-based centre for religious liberties founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, said: "This is not an isolated incident.
I fear Egypt is turning by stealth into an Islamic state". Simon Qadri, of Christian Solidarity, a human rights agency, said: "There is this image of Egypt as a secular country which is fighting fundamentalism but it is not true at all. Islamic law is the basis of the constitution and there is no freedom of religion. If anything, Mubarak tries to appease the fundamentalists."Copts were the ancient inhabitants of Egypt before the Arab invasions in the seventh century, but have been surrounded for centuries by a hostile Muslim majority.
They now need presidential permission to open a church, their history cannot be taught in schools and people can be arrested under the National Security Act for converting to their faith.Mustafa Shukravi, a human rights activist who converted to Christianity and was jailed for 10 months, was granted asylum in England last month. He said: "I was beaten with sticks and electric shocks. I was hung, blindfolded, made to stand for five days and five nights."Despite the outcry over the Al Kosheh attack, the Mubarak government has refused to take action.
A letter of protest from Freedom House to the Egyptian ambassador in Washington elicited the reply that only 25-40 Christians were arrested, it said: "Bishop Wissa is known for his extreme religious views and stirring sectarianism." Last week the United States Senate approved the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act under which President Clinton is obliged to take some form of action against all countries cited by the State Department as not allowing religious liberty. Egypt is prominent on this list.The State Department is sending officials to Cairo to meet Bishop Wissa next week.
The bishop has medical reports on many of those detained, some of whom will be permanently disfigured, on addition to photographs of their injuries and hopes that these may be used to lobby for a boycott on tourism or other form of sanctions.But the Clinton administration sees Mr Mubarak as a key player in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and seems unlikely to risk upsetting him by reducing its £1.3 billion aid package.