Egypt village evicts eight Christian families, says rights group

Eight Coptic Christian families have been evicted from a village in northern Egypt following clashes sparked by rumors of an illicit affair between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman, a rights group said on Sunday.

The decision to evict the families came after a meeting of village elders - a traditional form of conflict resolution - in the village of Sharbat near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said.

On January 27, hundreds of Muslim residents of Sharbat attacked the home and shops of a Coptic Christian man, Murad Samy Guirguis, and property belonging to his family, following rumors that he had an affair with a Muslim woman.

Fearing for his life, Guirguis handed himself over to police but the homes and villages of relatives were also later set on fire.

After three reconciliation meetings with village elders, involving local police, it was then decided that eight families in the village should be evicted and their properties sold, EIPR said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political force in the country, denied that eight Coptic families had been evicted.

A spokesperson for its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said in a statement the trouble "ended with a decision by the village residents to remove the people of both Christian and Muslim families involved only, in order to prevent further bloodshed and sectarian trouble."

EIPR, which investigated the case, expressed its "utmost condemnation at the failure of the police to protect the homes and properties of the Copts" in question.

Egypt's Copts, who comprise nearly 10 percent of the country's 82 million population, are the Middle East's largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalization.

They have also been the target of sectarian violence.

Egypt has seen increased tensions between Muslims and Christians over the past few months, sparked by neighborhood quarrels and disputes over church building and rumors of forced conversions.

Copts have been particularly nervous since Islamist parties, including ultra-conservative Salafi groups, won almost three-quarters of the seats in the first parliamentary elections since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising.

-AFP/NOW Lebanon