The four Irish citizens who were trapped in a besieged Egyptian mosque are now being held in Cairo’s Tora jail after the security forces stormed the building yesterday.
The Halawa siblings - Omaima (21), Fatima (23), Somaia (27), and 17-year-old brother Ibrihim - were among hundreds of people forced to leave the Al Fateh mosque in Cairo after it was stormed by Egyptian security forces yesterday.
They had sought refuge in the building from violent clashes on Friday during the a "Day of Rage" called by the Muslim Brotherhood. Teargas was fired and heavy gunfire was heard before the mosque was cleared.
Their father is Hussein Halawa, the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh in Dublin.
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Joe Costello said this afternoon the four family members were together in the prison and the Irish ambassador to Egypt Isolde Moylan is trying to arrange to visit them.
“The Irish embassy is endeavouring to do everything that it can do to ensure their safety and also to look at the broader picture and to try and ensure that it can make what impression it can on the broader situation,” he said on RTÉ’s This Week programme.
Mr Costello said the Government was not aware of any other Irish citizens in difficulty in Egypt. “The situation is quite bad throughout a lot of Egypt. At least as many people were killed and injured in the rest of Egypt as have been killed in Cairo so Egypt is not a safe place at the present time. “
The missing siblings’ sister Nasaybi Halawa said the family was trying to stay strong but were extremely concerned.“The last time I talked to my sister was about 1pm this afternoon (Saturday),” Ms Halawa said from her home in Firhouse, Dublin last night. “They had taken her mobile phone but she managed to borrow one. All the while they (security forces) were harassing her and she was screaming and crying.
“We are trying to cope. We are trying to be strong so we can do something for them. We have a hope that everything will be fine.”
The sibling s have been in Egypt on holiday for the summer. They were joined by their mother two weeks ago but their father is still in Dublin. The family, who moved to Dublin 18 years ago, travel to Egypt every year to visit relatives and friends.
Ms Halawa said her sister had described conditions inside the mosque as austere and traumatic. “They were inside for 18 hours without food and water. They had to drink from a fountain which was not meant for drinking,” she said. “My brother, who is under 18 years of age was in the same place as dead bodies. They had been running from gunfire and the mosque, as a holy place should be respected. Is that a crime now?”
The siblings took refuge in the mosque on Friday as violent clashes between supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and the security forces killed scores of people in the Egyptian capital.
Dr Ali Selim, a friend of the Halawa family and a senior member of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) spoke to Omaima and her siblings when they were inside the mosque on Friday night.
He said those inside blocked the doors because they did not feel safe. “There were calls from outside to open the doors and go out,” he said. “I think the problem was lack of trust. They did not open the door because they were afraid if they opened the door they would be in danger.”
He said those inside did not know who was outside and whether they could trust them. “They heard screams from outside, they heard people talking to them,” he said. “But they could not figure out what was happening.”
Dr Selim, who taught the four siblings Arabic, said that they were bright students with “very inquisitive minds”.
Yesterday afternoon, before the mosque was cleared, Omaima Halawa, a final-year student at Blanchardstown Institute of Technology, spoke to The Irish Times. Speaking from inside the mosque as gunshots were being fired, she said it was surrounded by security forces, who had told everyone inside that they would be shot if they tried to flee the besieged building. "We're still surrounded inside the mosque, it is unsafe, they are not letting us leave," she said. "People have been injured they have been firing at the mosque all night."
She said they were warned they could be shot if they tried to leave and requested an escort from the Irish Embassy in Cairo. Ms Halawa also claimed "thugs" outside the mosque threatened to kill her if she left the building. "They have personally threatened to slaughter me when they see me."
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said last night they are continuing to liaise with authorities in Egypt. “We are in ongoing contact with the Egyptian authorities in relation to the safety and well-being of all Irish citizens involved. We are also involved with the family in Dublin,” he said.
Dozens of people took part in a solidarity protest yesterday outside the Egyptian embassy in Dublin. The rally, hosted by the Irish Anti-War Movement, was designed to put pressure on the Irish Government to condemn the massacre of civilians in Cairo.
The assault on the al-Fateh Mosque began on Friday when pro-Morsi protesters and armed men fled into the worship centre to avoid angry vigilantes and arrest. They piled furniture in the mosque’s entrance to block authorities and enraged anti-Morsi protesters from reaching them.
The mosque served as a field hospital and an open-air morgue as a Brotherhood-called day of protests descended into violence. By daybreak yesterday, security forces and armoured personnel carriers had surrounded the mosque and it appeared that military-led negotiations might defuse the stand-off.
A post on the Facebook page of the army spokesman, Colonel Mohammed Ali, accused gunmen of firing from the mosque at nearby buildings. The upper floors of a commercial building and blood bank towering over the square caught fire during the mayhem.
A Muslim cleric, Sheik Abdel-Hafiz el-Maslami, said people were afraid to leave the mosque out of fear of detention or being assaulted by the crowd outside. He said there were armed men inside the mosque at one point but protesters had forced them out. “We lost control over things,” the cleric said. “There were men with arms in the mosque who were forced out of the mosque but we can’t control things here.”