The church of Mar-Mina in the village of Ezbet Yacoub in Samalout, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, has been opened for prayers after little less than four months of forced closure for security reasons. The first Mass was held there on Sunday 7 December following a decision by Minya Governor Salah Ziyada to reopen the church.
Even though the service was held in a building of yet unpainted brick walls and no pews or benches to accommodate the worshippers, the congregation was elated at being able to pray in a church of their own.
No more than one church
Mar-Mina’s was closed last August when rumours circulated in the village claiming that another church was being built, a claim which infuriated the Muslim villagers. According to Father Metta’os Matta of Mar-Mina’s, there had been no church in the village so, in February this year, the Copts started building Mar-Mina’s. “Building went on peacefully,” Fr Metta’os told Watani. “The Muslim villagers made no trouble whatsoever till, last July, a rumour circulated in the village that the Copts were building yet another church. The Muslims went into a rage and began attacking us with violence. At this point, we decided to stop construction work for the sake of peace in the village.
“We resumed construction in August,” Fr Metta’os said, “but the Muslims again violently attacked us and there were riots in the village. The police arrested 29 young Coptic men and four Muslims. But Samalout Bishopric and the Muslim village elders intervened and it was decided that construction would be resumed once we got the necessary permits. We finally got these on 18 November and went on with completing construction of the building and staircase.
“The church serves some 120 extended families,” he said.
Mar-Mina’s is the second church in Samalout that reopens after closure for security reasons—a phrase commonly used to denote the forced closure of a church because of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. But another four churches and a community service centre in the same parish remain closed and await permission to reopen.
Banned from worship
The Copts of the village of Naj Rizg Shenouda in Sohag, some 450km south of Cairo, are not as lucky; they have yet to be able to build their own church. All efforts to obtain official licence to build a church in the Naj have failed since as far back as 1965. Back then, a wealthy Copt known as Megaddis Greiss donated money to build a mosque and a church. The mosque was quickly erected, but until this day the village extremist Muslims have refused to allow a church to be built.
As the village congregation swelled, the Copts resorted to holding a weekly Mass in the village homes; a priest came from outside the village to perform this service every week.
The Coptic villager Horus Samuel told Watani that the Coptic owners of four adjacent houses—village houses in Egypt are very tiny; in this case the four houses made up a ground area of barely 200 square metres—pulled down the walls separating them to turn the area into a church. “But one of the homes was very old and dilapidated to the point of threatening the lives of the worshippers,” Mr Samuel said, “and we had to pull it down and rebuild it. That was right after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. The Muslim villagers attacked us and shot at the construction workers, so the police came in and blockaded the house that was under construction, and declared it off-limits. So we continued to pray in the other three houses, even though part of the area is unroofed.
“As the cold weather came in we tried to get some plastic covers to shield the worshippers from the bitter winter wind and occasional rain, but we were again attacked.”
Is this what we get?
Mr Samuel angrily said that that was the fifth attack the Islamists waged against the ‘church’ this year. “The police do nothing,” he said. “They merely look on, as though in complicity. They don’t even catch any Muslim for carrying unlicensed guns, which they all do.”
“There are some 3000 Copts in our village,” he said. “We are good citizens and have taken part in all the elections and performed our national duty perfectly. Is this what we get in return? We are not given licence to build a church, neither are we allowed to pray in our homes. Is this the freedom of belief we voted for? Is the State incapable of allowing some 3000 Copts a place to worship in?”
14 December 2014