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Instead of convicting the Muslim murder suspects accused of killing 21 Christians in last year's El-Kosheh massacre, a judge in southern Egypt has accused the local Coptic clergy of responsibility for the three-day rampage.

In his opening statement before announcing the verdict on February 5, presiding Judge Mohammed Affify accused three priests in the predominantly Christian village of failing to put a stop to the rioting.

During the mayhem, which erupted between December 31, 1999, and January 2, 2000, twenty-one Christians were killed and 260 of their homes and businesses destroyed or looted in El-Kosheh and surrounding villages in southern Egypt's Sohag governate. The only Muslim victim was shot dead accidentally by a fellow Muslim.

Singling out Fr. Gabriel, Fr. Bessada and Fr. Isaac by name, Affify stated that the three priests "shoulder the moral responsibility for escalating the events," and urged church authorities to discipline them.

According to Coptic activist lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla, the judge's statement of his personal opinion constituted a direct violation of Egyptian law and judicial proceedings, "all of which require the judge to be impartial in any litigation before him." Nakhla said he planned to submit a memorandum of appeal next week to overturn the verdict.

"But we shouldn't put all the blame on our judiciary system, or on the judge," editor Youssef Sidhom of the weekly "Watani" newspaper told Compass after the verdict was released. "We should shed light on the lousy, inefficient work that has been done by the police. The police have presented insufficient evidence, so they have left the dirty work for the judge to do."

In its formal verdict, the Sohag court acquitted all but four of the 96 suspects in the El-Kosheh ...

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