The 10 Copts who were detained last week for building a non-licensed fencing wall to surround a church-owned plot of land in the village Abu-Hinnis in Samalout, Minya, Upper Egypt, were released on a collective bail of EGP1000 last Thursday 28 January. Samalout public prosecutor issued an order to discontinue building the wall.
The story goes back some three years ago when the Coptic congregation in Abu-Hinnis purchased a piece of land in the village to build a church upon. The village already housed a local church but, being very old and built on a mere 45 square metres, had become too small to serve a congregation of some 270 extended families—some 3000 persons—in Abu-Hinnis and three villages in its vicinity. The old two-storey building had been licensed in 2003 as a community centre; it included administrative services on the ground floor and a place for conducting religious rites on the second floor.
The local priest Father Bassili says that in 2014 the congregation purchased a 540sq.m. (30m x 18m) piece of land to build a church upon, an applied for licence to Minya Governor Salah Ziyada. The governor, Fr Bassili says, declined to grant the licence on grounds that it was not his legal prerogative to do so, which drove the Church officials to request a permit for a community centre instead. According to Father Estafanous Shehata of Samalout Bishopric, every time they talked to Governor Ziyada, he gave lame excuses and postponed any decision.
A few months ago, Fr Estanous said, a group of some 30 Syrian refugees came and camped on the land. The Copts realised that if they do not regain their land there and then the Syrian encampment would become a fait accompli and the land would be forever lost to the congregation. The Copts thus drove the Syrians out and moved to build a wall around the land to protect it from any encroachment. The village ghafeer—literally guardsman, the equivalent of the village policeman—clashed verbally and physically with the builders and attempted to stop them on grounds that they had no permit to build the wall. Six Coptic men were detained but were later released.
The Copts attempted to get a permit to build the wall, despite the fact that no building permits are required in villages. However, this being a church-owned land, a permit was required. When no permit was granted, and feeling the threat that their dearly bought land would be seized from them, the Copts of Abu-Hinnis started building the wall on Monday 25 January. Even the women lent a hand, so keen were they on protecting their land. The ghafeer stood up to them, a brawl broke out, he called the police, and 10 Copts were arrested. It is not known for sure whether the ghafeer was injured during the clashes, or if his wounds were self-inflicted.
The Copts face charges of building the wall without licence and assaulting a public servant while doing his job.
Even though the Coptic detainees have been released, they still await trial.
The entire incident confirms the dire need for a fair law to govern the building of churches and church-related buildings. Such a law should be passed by the newly elected parliament, as stipulated by the Constitution. The current legislation regulating the building of churches is outdated, extremely oppressive, and almost prohibitive; in several instances Copts have had to wait for as many as 40 years to be granted a permit to build a new church.
30 January 2016