CAIRO — A Muslim mob stripped an elderly Christian woman and paraded her naked on the streets in an attack last week in which seven Christian homes were also ransacked and torched in a province south of the Egyptian capital.
According to the local Orthodox Coptic church and security officials, the assault in the Minya province village of Karama on Friday began after rumors spread that the elderly woman’s son had an affair with a Muslim woman — a taboo in conservative Egypt.
Police have arrested six men suspected of taking part in the violence and are looking for 12 more, the security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Anba Makarios, Minya’s top Christian cleric, told a talk show host on the private Dream TV network that the 70-year-old woman was dragged out of her home by the mob who beat her and insulted her before they stripped her off her clothes and forced her to walk through the streets as they chanted Allahu Akbar, or “God is great.”
The woman reported the incident to the police five days later, said Makarios, adding that she had found it too difficult to “swallow the humiliation” she suffered.
The incident, intensely publicized since Wednesday night, has unleashed a flurry of condemnations on social media networks where users accused ultraconservative Salafi Muslims of being behind the violence. The hashtag “Egypt stripped naked” on Twitter gained traction shortly after it was introduced.
Extramarital affairs or sex between unmarried couples are taboo among both Muslims and Christians in Egypt. Such incidents often attract violent reactions in rural areas, where questions of honor can lead to deadly family feuds that endure for years or result in ostracizing of the perpetrators.
Christian men cannot marry Muslim women in Egypt unless they convert to Islam first, but Muslim men can marry Christian women. An affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is almost certain to cause a great deal of trouble if the couple are found out, particularly in rural areas.
According to a statement Wednesday by Makarios, police arrived at the scene of Friday’s violence nearly two hours after the attack began. The family of the Christian man had notified the police of threats against them by Muslim villagers the day before the attack, he added.
“No one did anything and the police took no pre-emptive or security measures in anticipation of the attacks,” the cleric said, speaking in another TV interview, also Wednesday night.
“We are not living in a jungle or a tribal society. It’s incorrect for anyone to declare himself judge, police and ruler,” he told Ahmed Moussa, a prominent talk show host on the private Sada el-Balad television.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of more than 90 million people, have long complained of discrimination in the mostly Muslim nation.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in office since 2014, has sought to address some of their grievances, changing election laws to allow more Christians into the national legislature and easing restrictions on building new churches and renovating old ones.
But many Christians say they are still consistently victimized in disputes with Muslims.
Criminal gangs have often targeted wealthy Christian families south of Cairo in recent years, kidnapping their children for ransom. There have also been scores of cases in recent years of underage Christian girls lured away from their families by Muslim men who force them to convert and keep them in hiding until they reach adulthood. Christians often complain that police don’t do enough to pursue the Muslim perpetrators.
At least 35 percent of Minya’s population is Christian, the largest in any of Egypt’s 27 provinces.
Speaking on Moussa’s Sada el-Balad TV, Makarios also said that the late arrival of the police gave the attackers “ample time” to do what they had set out to do. He predicted the village crisis will most likely be handled through a government-sponsored meeting of the two sides in which the Christians will be forced to accept “humiliating” conditions for reconciliation.
If the case were different, and a Muslim man was having an affair with a Christian woman, the reaction would have hardly been so violent, he added.
“It is a disgrace for honest men to remain silent while accepting, seeing or hearing this.”