Today, Tuesday 14 April, has seen the end to the sectarian violence in the Minya village of al-Galaa’ in Upper Egypt. The police released 21 Copts and 17 Muslims who were recently caught during skirmishes between the village Copts and Muslims. In an out-of-court settlement, the Copts and Muslims had decided to withdraw the official claims they had made against one another in order for their sons to be set free.
Some 11 men, a majority of whom were Copts were injured during an assault by a group of fanatic Muslim villagers against the village Copts on Saturday 4 April. Seven were moved to hospital. A number of Coptic-owned homes were attacked and pelted with stones, and a small bus carrying Coptic schoolgirls on their way back home from school was also pelted with stones. This drove the bus driver to fight with the attackers; other villagers from both sides got into the fight which then escalated to cover a large part of the village.
The police intervened and arrested 17 Muslims and 21 Copts.
The assault comes to a backdrop of sectarian tension that has been going on for weeks as the Copts attempted to build a church the official licence of which they had obtained from Minya Governor Salah Ziyada.
Mud brick church
Galaa’s 1400-strong Coptic population has since 1977 been served by the 60-square-metre mud brick church of the Holy Virgin. That same small church also serves the Copts of nearby village Ezbet Shalaby. Over the years, the congregation swelled while the mud brick building suffered from the ravages of time. Seven years ago the Copts of Galaa’ applied for a permit to build a new church on a piece of land they possessed in the village. Radical Muslim villagers who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood got wind of the matter and quickly erected a mosque on a space adjacent to the Coptic-owned land where the new church was planned. This effectively blocked the construction of the church, since church building rules in Egypt stipulate that no church may be built adjacent to a mosque; a church has to keep a safe distance defined by the rules.
The Copts had no choice but to renovate their already existing church and expand it. Two Coptic families who owned houses adjacent to the church decided to donate them to expand the church. The Copts applied for a permit to demolish the old church and build a new wider one. Last January, a permit was issued to this effect by Minya Governor. The Copts went directly to work on their project.
The village Islamists, however, attempted to block the work by threatening the Copts. When the Copts proceeded anyway, counting on the fact that they were in possession of all the necessary permits, the Islamists resorted to terrorising them. They burned the Coptic-owned fields in the vicinity, set fire to their crops, and stole their cattle. They threatened worse wreckage should the Copts insist on building the church which, they insisted “will be built over your dead bodies and those of your children”.
The Copts filed complaints with the police, citing the names of the figures who led the aggression against them and who are known all through the village. But no measures were taken against any of the aggressors. Finally, the deputy to Samalout Police Inspector, in an attempt to have the problem resolved peacefully, suggested that the Copts should meet with the village Muslims and work out a solution.
The Copts obliged and a number of moderate Muslims displayed goodwill, but the radical Muslims worked up antagonism against the Copts and matters reached an impasse. The radicals then decided to hold a ‘conciliation’ session with the Copts to ‘agree on’ the conditions for the church to be built.
At that point, however, no representative of the Church accepted to take part in any ‘conciliation’, nor did any substantial Coptic figure in the village. Only 10 Copts attended the session which was also attended by the deputy police inspector. The radical Muslims dictated their conditions that the new church should be erected in place of the old one and should display no Church symbol whatsoever; no cross, dome or bell. The church must be built without the foundation that would allow any future renovation and, should the building fall, it can never be rebuilt [This in accordance with an Islamist fatwa (legal edict) on the rules of building churches in Islamic lands]. The Copts rejected the conditions and walked out.
The Copts of Galaa refused to relinquish their right to worship as full Egyptian citizens, and they would not submit to unreasonable, unlawful conditions. They demonstrated last February in front of Minya governorate, and again last March in Samalout. The Governor promised to take matters in hand but did nothing.
Several attempts were again made to reach conciliation between the village Muslims and Copts, and again failed because of the Muslim’s belligerence and intransigence. The Galaa’ Muslims even demanded an apology by the village Copts to be published in the media which had got wind of the problem and covered it, highlighting thus the injustice the Muslims were inflicting on the Copts. The Copts rejected that demand even though their lands, crops, and cattle were being continuously attacked, robbed, or burned at the hands of the village Muslims.
An agreement was finally reached on Tuesday 31 March, sponsored by the official Conciliation Committee in Samalout. The Copts saw the agreement as unjust, but said they had to give in for peace to prevail and for them to be able to proceed with building their church. It was decided that the church would be a single storey building and would have a dome but no bell tower. Two men from every Coptic family—in rural Egypt ‘family’ stands for extended family or clan—would pay the Muslims courtesy visits that would work in the stead of the apology the Muslims had first demanded. The Copts were made to pledge not to take the matter to the media. The agreement was signed by five representatives on each side.
Governor Ziyada gave his orders that the first action in demolishing the old church in preparation for building the new one should be taken tomorrow, Wednesday, which marks resumption of normal work all over Egypt following the Easter and Shamm al-Nessim holidays.
14 April 2015