By Richard Engel
Middle East Times
Samir is planning to escape with his family from a small village near 
Abu Qurqas to Cairo. He fears for his life and has been told that if he 
refuses to pay gizia ("requital") money that Muslim villagers demand 
for the 'protection' of his family, he will be killed. 
    "They take whenever they need," says Samir who was afraid to give 
his full name. "When they need weapons they take from the Christians. 
I'm scared I will be killed. Even if I was killed, no one would say 
anything. Even a witness to my murder wouldn't say anything." 
    Samir complains that gizia is increasing in a number of small 
villages in Upper Egypt, making it impossible to remain in the region. 
    "Everyone pays, but what can we do? There are so many people who 
deny it. They are lying! Everyone pays! I have no outlet!" says Samir, 
apologizing for his excitement.
    Amgad, also from a village near Abu Qurqas, has been living in 
hiding in a poor district of Cairo for over a year. In 1996 he received 
three letters demanding gizia from the Gamma Islamiya, Egypt's largest 
Muslim militant group. The third letter, obtained by the Middle East 
Times, said, "We demand EŁ10,000 from you tomorrow. We will not accept one 
piaster less and if you bring the money one day late it will be 
EŁ15,000. If you can't bring it in these days we will not accept even millions 
of pounds from you and you know the punishment for that. This is a 
final decision." 
    The handwritten letter was signed "Gamma Islamiya".
    Bishop Thomas, responsible for about 100,000 Copts in the bishopric 
of Quiseyya, explained that gizia has become "status quo" in some 
villages. The bishop, who has kept track of over a hundred villagers forced 
to pay protection money, explained that Christians in his bishopric are 
forced to give gizia from terrorists groups as well as from local 
Muslim bosses.
    "Most of the itawwa [contributions] come from a well-known person. 
He sends a message [saying] to send an amount of money. They don't need 
secret letters. He will pass by [a Christian's store or home] and say, 
'you send me EŁ1,000.'" 
    The bishop explained that this type of extortion is "very common," 
and that nearly all Christians pay gizia to Muslims in five villages in 
    "Of course in the other bishoprics they have [gizia]. Of course, it 
is the same situation. In Minya and Abu Qurqas they have this. They are 
mafia bosses. It's very well known that only the Christians are 
paying," he added. 
    "The phenomena is much more important and serious than the fanatics 
killing people in churches. This is the true fundamentalism," said 
Milad Hanna, a prominent Egyptian Coptic intellectual. The wicked and 
filthy incidents of itawwa or gizia mean that there is no government in 
Egypt. It means that we are living in a fundamentalist state like Iran or 
Saudi Arabia.
    Hanna explained that he believes this phenomena is a serious 
problem because it will cause a demographic shift in Egypt and is damaging to 
national unity.
    "I accuse the National Democratic Party right away because for the 
last 20 years they have excluded the Copts from political life."
    The bishop explained that gizia is demanded anytime there is an 
exchange of money or when business is done. He explained that whenever 
Copts return from abroad, buy or sell goods or property, or harvest their 
land, a Muslim boss appears to collect his share.
    Samir, who sells honey, explained that there is no escape from the 
protection payments. He said he recently went to the Delta to trade so 
that people would not know that he was doing business. Samir explained, 
however, that the local Muslim boss followed him to northern Egypt.
    "It's a system that has destroyed development," said Bishop Thomas, 
"It is a mafia."
    "They even take from the people who don't have anything," said 
Samir. Christians even go and borrow money to pay.
    "Everyone knows, the police know and do nothing. I am very sad 
because a lot of people are leaving because the situation is not sound," 
said Samir
    A pastor in Cairo, who asked not to be named, explained that the 
Islamists use the Quran to justify taking money from Christians. He 
pointed to Chapter 9, verse 29 of the Quran which states, "Fight against 
those from among the people who do not believe in Allah nor the last 
day... until they pay the tribute out of hand, utterly subdued." 
    The pastor, who frequently visits the Minya governorate, said gizia 
was not common until recently. "Gizia arose since the draining of the 
militant's income, since the security forces began cracking down on 
them. First they looted jewelry stores, now they make some people pay."
    "The problem is that the Islamists are trying to use Christians as 
war prisoners," said Raafat Said, a Muslim and member of parliament 
representing the leftist Tagammu party.
    "The more the government tries to crack down, the more they punish 
the Copts. The more the security forces cut off sources of finance from 
abroad, the more they take from the Copts." 
    Said explained that the Copts are afraid of informing the police 
because they do not believe that the police are interested in helping 
them. "A lot of Copts are afraid of informing the police and I doubt that 
the officer is interested in stopping them because his inner feeling is 
to let the Copts pay," explained Said.
    "We only know the people killed, we never know the people who are 
paying because if they tell they are dead. A doctor was recently killed 
because he refused to pay, we didn't know that he had been paying," 
said Dr. Talat Hamad from Abu Qurqas.
    "In my imagination the problem is the atmosphere. It is a black 
atmosphere and we need to mobilize forces to stop it," said Said.
    Bishop Thomas explained that the violence serves to terrorize the 
Coptic community into silence. He explained that in October 1994 two 
brothers who owned a grocery store had been paying gizia, but refused to 
pay EŁ50,000. Days later, militants broke into the brother's home and 
assassinated them in front of their families.
    "This is hell, but I don't pay," said a Copt in Quiseyya, adding 
that he would love to leave the region but cannot afford it.
    This article would have appeared in the 5 April 1997 issue of The 
Middle East Times.
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