Funeral of slain family brings religious tensions to a boil
Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 10:30 p.m.
JERSEY CITY, N.J. - A funeral for an Egyptian Christian couple and their two daughters slain last week devolved into a melee after the services Monday, with mourners shoving and punching each other as many blamed Muslims for the killings.
Investigators are looking into the possibility that Hossam Armanious, 47, his 37-year-old wife, Amal Garas, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were slain by a Muslim angered over postings that the father wrote in an Internet chat room.
The family is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose members make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population. Copts generally live in peace with Muslims, but violence has flared in Egypt recently, including protests last month that flared into stone-throwing and arrests.
The New Jersey family's bodies were found bound and gagged Friday, their throats and heads stabbed repeatedly. No arrests have been made.
Authorities stressed that robbery remained a possible motive because no cash or jewelry were found in the home. Prosecutor Guy Gregory said the father's wallet was found empty. Despite that possibility, the slayings have created enormous tensions between Muslims and Christians here.
The acrimony became apparent as soon as four copper caskets holding the bodies were carried through the streets of New Jersey's second-largest city to a church.
Protesters carrying anti-Muslim signs and shouting anti-Islam slogans prompted several scuffles with mourners, who rebuked the protesters for having no respect for the dead or the grieving relatives. One sign, above a photograph of the smiling family, read, "American Family Beheaded on American Soil. Welcome Bin Laden." Another read "Terrorists Reached Our Home."
"Muslims as a group kill people," said Ashaf Baul, a marchers at the head of the procession. "Nobody else slaughters people. If it was a robbery, why tie their hands and cut their heads?"
But others in the procession took offense at such talk.
"Get out! We don't need any talk about Sept. 11 or Muslims!" yelled Amil Sarofiem, a church official, to a man who was shouting anti-Muslim slogans.
Once the bodies were loaded into four black hearses to be taken to a cemetery, more clashes broke out in the street outside the church, including one in which about 35 people shoved each other and traded punches. Police officers pushed several against cars to separate them from the fray as the fight spilled into a parking garage.
Inside the church, Ferial Karas, Garas' sister-in-law, screamed as the caskets came into view. She jumped out of her seat in the first row of portable chairs and raced toward one of the coffins, flinging herself on it and sobbing. With that, scores of screams and wails rose from other mourners in the crowd of 2,000 that packed so tightly into the building that police had to turn away an additional 300 who sought to push their way inside.
One man inside the church began screaming "Muslim is the killer! Muslim is the killer!" He was dragged from the church by five police officers who hustled him into an unmarked police car and quickly drove off.
Ahmed Sheded, president of the Islamic Center of Jersey City who attended the ceremony, denounced the slayings.
"We feel this is something that was very far away from our community," he said. "A real Muslim can't do that. Any religious person who believes in God cannot do this, even to an animal."
The regional head of the Coptic church also cautioned against a rush to judgment, but Monir Dowoud, president of the American Coptic Association, said Sunday that "Muslim terrorists" were responsible.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest communities in Christendom. According to tradition it was founded in the first century A.D. by Saint Mark, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus.
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