January 18, 2005-NY Times
Rage Explodes at Egyptian Family's Funeral
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
JERSEY CITY, Jan. 17 - The funeral for an Egyptian immigrant family found slain in their home here erupted into a scene of chaos and roiling emotion on Monday, with some mourners jumping on top of cars, shoving each other and threatening to beat a Muslim cleric who was escorted to safety by the police.
The source of the disruption at the Coptic Christian service appeared to be the presence of Muslims, who said they had come to pay their respects.
In the days since the victims, Hossam Armanious, 46; his wife, Amal Garas, 36; and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were found stabbed to death in their home early on Friday, speculation that the slayings were a hate crime has led to loud recriminations by Christian Egyptians, expressed in news interviews and at a demonstration here on Sunday.
Muslims and Christians have a long and violent history in Egypt, where Muslims are the majority, but relations between the groups had never soured locally, several Muslim and Coptic Christian leaders said. Although the case brought new tension to the Egyptian community, the Jersey City police have refused to say whether they believe the slayings were the result of religious hatred.
"Those are killers!" yelled one man as Sheik Tarek Yousof Saleh, a Muslim cleric from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, left the funeral site, escorted by police officers. "We don't want them in the church!"
In a telephone interview yesterday afternoon, Sheik Saleh said he never intended to cause trouble and regretted attending the funeral. "I didn't come to hurt anyone, I came to support them," said Sheikh Saleh, 42, the imam of the Oulel Albab Mosque on Bay Ridge Avenue, sounding shaken. "I am sorry."
The uproar outside the community center of St. George and St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church, on Bergen Avenue, began when some of the hundreds of mourners present saw a Coptic bishop hug the sheik before the sheik left in a police car, several members of the church said. According to the Rev. Antonious Tanious and several other Coptic Christians, two men began screaming at Bishop David, who presides over the Coptic churches in the Northeast, asking him how he could let a Muslim attend the service.
Panicked police officers whisked the two men and some others into a nearby garage and closed the metal door just as a swell of people, some screaming and waving wooden crosses, pressed up against the door.
"A metal gate on the garage was pulled down to prevent the groups from attacking each other," said Capt. John Tooke of the Jersey City Police Department. "It was a very chaotic and emotional scene. We had people that were rowdy, disruptive and really out of control."
After 15 minutes, most of the group in the garage was allowed to leave. The two men were detained but not charged, Captain Tooke said. Another man walked around dazed afterward, his hand bleeding. "We tell the Muslim people, 'Don't come here.' We don't like them and they come," said Nadia Sourrial, a church member, echoing a sentiment expressed by numerous other people who were interviewed. "They like to show us we're dead."
In the interview yesterday, Sheik Saleh said two editors of local Arabic-language newspapers called him on Sunday evening and advised him to go to the funeral in a show of solidarity between Muslims and Christians, he said.
Sheik Saleh, who is Egyptian, went with one of the editors, Ahmed Saleh Maharem, who is also a columnist. Mr. Maharem said at least 10 other Muslims were present, and some were welcomed. But the Sheik, who wore a white abayya, or head covering, was most noticeably Muslim.
Dozens of other Muslims, many of them community leaders, canceled plans to attend the funeral after seeing television reports about the mounting friction, said Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim community activist in Brooklyn. The New Jersey office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement Monday saying that the organization had called on law enforcement authorities to do everything in their power to apprehend those responsible for the murders.
Investigators, who are working with the F.B.I., continued to comb the family's house on Oakland Avenue over the weekend in search of clues. Theft appeared to be at least part of the motive: investigators said that only a penny remained in the house after the slayings and that Mr. Armanious's pockets and wallet had been emptied.
The police would not confirm reports by Coptic Christians that Mr. Armanious had engaged in fiery debates about Christianity and Islam in an Internet chat room, which fueled rumors that the murders were a hate crime.
A Justice Department official did confirm a report, on WABC-TV, that a relative of the slain family was a translator for the government in the case of Lynne F. Stewart, the lawyer accused of aiding terrorists. The official said the translator was a distant relative who had not seen the family in several years, adding, "We believe there is no connection between this person and the slaying."
The friction started before the funeral yesterday morning as hundreds of people gathered for a procession in Journal Square in downtown Jersey City. One man yelled, "Who is going to be next?" as pallbearers lifted the four bronze coffins out of the hearses.
Several women began wailing and crying, beating their fists on the coffins and slapping their own faces as the procession slowly began to move along Bergen Avenue. About 20 clergymen in white robes crashed cymbals and led the group, with Bishop David, in a melodious and haunting Coptic song, asking God for mercy.
Shopkeepers, pedestrians and other passers-by stood stunned at the edge of the six-lane avenue, watching intently as the four coffins moved past, each one marked by a photograph of the victim inside. Even the pallbearers wept.
The procession ended after four blocks, as hundreds of people crowded into the church's community center. The coffins were placed in a row at the front, covered by floral wreaths. Relatives of the family rocked back and forth in grief as the service began, with clergy members reading from the Bible and friends remembering the slain family.
A Sunday school teacher read from several essays Sylvia had written, including: "The only good thing I absolutely adore about Jersey is that my church is in it. I love my church to death."
As the service progressed, Sheik Saleh was standing on the sidewalk outside when a police officer invited him in, he said, followed by a church member who led him to the front, where the mayor of Jersey City, Jerramiah T. Healy, was ending a speech.
Suddenly, several people cried, "Out! Out!" and the room erupted in loud shouts. Ayman Garas, the brother of one of the victims, Amal Garas, yelled in Arabic for everyone to stop, and Bishop David invited the sheik to sit with several Coptic clergymen.
The crowd continued to yell until Bishop David called out: "Everyone has to show the teachings of Christ, the love. I would like everyone to sit down and be in peace."
At the end of the service, as Sheik Saleh walked out with several clergy members and the police, one woman near the front door called out, "Animals! Animals!"
Around the same time, Sheik Saleh said he heard threats of a beating: "Bring a stick to his head," he said he recalled people yelling. "Beat him, take him away."
"I don't blame any one of them," he added. "Emotionally they are not happy right now."
After the bodies were entombed in crypts at Rosedale Cemetery and Crematory in Linden, the funeral party returned to Bergen Avenue to share a meal of chicken and mashed potatoes. Bishop David, when asked what he thought of one of the men who yelled at him after the funeral, said, "People are angry. He's still our child."