The details surrounding the murder of four Coptic Christians in New Jersey are so gruesome that even the defenders of radical Muslims are getting fidgety. The Council on American-Islamic Relations went on record asking police officials to investigate the possibility that the killings were motivated by "bias."
"May God give comfort to the family and friends of the victims," the president of CAIR in New Jersey, Magdy Mahmoud, said last month. Despite CAIR's acknowledgment that bias may have played a role in the killings, Coptic Christians, including relatives of the victims, are expressing concern over the ability of law enforcement officials to investigate fully any connections between Muslim extremism and the deaths of Hossam Armanious, 47, his wife, Amal Garas, 37, and their two children, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8.
Family members are loath to condemn Muslim extremists for the murders, but say that the details of the killings are similar to murders perpetrated by extremists in Egypt, where Coptic Christians have been bound, gagged and had their throats slit.
Though the results of the autopsies will not be released until March 14, according to the prosecutor's report and death certificates, the preliminary causes of death are "stab wounds to the throat." I have spoken to - and had in-depth interviews with - family members, one of whom viewed the bodies at the Alvarez-Marshello Funeral Home before they were prepared and placed in closed caskets. They told me that the necks of each of the victims were "slit" across the throat. Below the slit of the parents' necks, three holes, about the size of the thumb, were "drilled" or "twisted" into the lower part of their throats. The daughters had two similar holes inflicted on their throats as well. These eyewitnesses say they have evidence of this in photographs taken of the bodies. The photos are said to be gruesome.
A statement from the Hudson county prosecutor, issued January 18, said that evidence of robbery is present in the case. It said that money was not found at the scene, that Armanious's pockets had been turned out and his wallet was emptied. A pocketbook had been emptied, the statement said, and drawers had been rifled in the home. The statement also said, however, that jewelry was present in the apartment. A computer was recovered in the children's bedroom. No signs of desecration of religious artifacts were found. No messages concerning religion were left by the actors, the statement said.
CAIR agrees with police findings that robbery is one possible motive for the crime. The group's Web site says: "Investigators are focusing on robbery as a possible motive because no money or jewels were found in the home."
But the Coptic community remains skeptical. Anies Garas, whose daughter, Amal, was among the victims, told me: "The police have vouchered all of the jewelry," he said. "None of it was taken. In fact, my daughter was still wearing a ring worth $3,500 after she was murdered." Mr. Garas says that though a small amount of money was taken, no valuables were removed from the house.
When Michael Meunier, the president of the U.S. Copts Association, met with the prosecutor last week he expressed serious concerns about the progress of the investigation. "The prosecutor told me that robbery was no longer the focus and acknowledged that this was the worst murder he has ever seen," Mr. Meunier said. "He told me he believes it was a vengeful crime."
Many Copts fear that New Jersey officials are caving in to pressure from Islamic lobby groups and the Egyptian government in order to "whitewash" this investigation. One of them, Rafique Iscandar, told me that he is fearful that investigators will discount the possibility that the murders were committed by radical Islamists who want to intimidate Christians in the United States, as they do in Egypt.
Mr. Iscandar and Hossam Armanious met in 1982 at Luxor, Egypt, where the two worked together in the construction business. They quickly became best friends. Mr. Iscandar even lived with the Armanious family for a time. "We made a lot of money together," he said. "It was easy for Hossam to hire people for construction jobs. Everyone knew and trusted him."
In 1985, Mr. Iscandar began complaining to the Egyptian authorities in Luxor about the increased oppression of Christians in Egypt. He says he spoke out about the forced conversions, the kidnapping of Coptic women by terrorist groups, the beating of Christian women and men in the streets, and the destruction of Christian properties and businesses, which he said he often witnessed.
As he became more vocal about this, Mr. Iscandar said, he received numerous death threats and was forced to go into hiding in 1987. He surfaced in Egypt for the last time in 1988 to attend his mother's funeral, where he met Armanious.
As Muslims began dominating Egyptian tourism, squeezing out Christian businessmen, thousands of Coptic Christians fled Egypt because of a diminishing livelihood and the escalating persecution. Armanious and his family also fled these conditions to settle with Mr. Iscandar in Jersey City. He worked in Mr. Iscandar's convenience store for about eight months, until he was hired by the Marriot Hotel near Princeton.
"Hossam was one of the last people to support me before I fled for my life in Egypt," Iscandar said sadly. "I was a hunted man there, but he gave me money and helped me to disappear to the U.S. He gave me my life and now he is dead."
As the perpetrators of the Armanious murders roam free, members of the Coptic community continue to live in fear of future attacks.
Ms. Sliwa is a freelance journalist based in New Jersey and the publisher of Freedom Now News, which is accessible on the Web at www.freeworldnow.com.