Wednesday 1 April saw the laying of the foundation stone of a church in the village of al-Our in Minya, Upper Egypt, to commemorate the 20 Copts who were beheaded last February by Islamic State militants in Libya.
Minya Governor, Salah Eddin Ziyada; and Samalout Bishop, Anba Pavnotius; joined hands to lay the foundation stone for the church which will be built on I feddan of land (I feddan = 4200 square metres). The incident, which was attended by top officials and security chiefs in Samalout, saw wide public participation that turned it into a festive event. Words were said that extolled national unity between al-Our’s Copts and Muslims among whom several made donations towards building the new church. Some contributed modest sums of EGP500, and Minya Governor donated a symbolic sum of EGP1000. He said he gave that sum in his capacity as an Egyptian citizen not as a governor.
President decides to build a church
Al-Our is the home village of 13 out of the 20 Copts; the others come from other Minya villages, The Copts were killed by IS on account of their Christian faith—and were thus named as martyrs in the Coptic Orthodox Church—as well as their Egyptian identity.
The gruesome video of the beheading was aired on the evening of 15 February; at dawn the following day Egypt’s Air Force waged airstrikes against IS targets in Libya, that went on for two days. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi visited Pope Twadros at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, to offer his condolences, and ordered a church to be built in al-Our to honour the martyrs. It is no secret that church building in Egypt is among the most arduous tasks Copts undertake and stands high on the list of their grievances since they represent the epitome of discrimination against them. Whereas mosques are built freely with no regulations whatsoever hindering their building but are rather granted facilities and benefits, church building is governed by outdated laws that go back to the 19th century and require a presidential decree to build a new church. Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, established once the post-Arab Spring Islamist regime was overthrown in July 2013, stipulates that a new law for building churches should be passed by the first post-2013 parliament which has yet to be elected. President Sisi’s decision was thus greatly appreciated by the Copts.
In response to President Sisi’s initiative, a Coptic businessman purchased a 5500sq.m. piece of land on which to build the church, and Samalout Bishoprc was in the process of legalising ownership of the land. At the same time, the architectural drawings for the new church were being prepared in order to get approval from the building authorities.
Last week, however, as Copts were preparing to mark the the arbaeen of the Libya martyrs—the arbaeen, literally forty, is an Egyptian custom of commemorating the dead forty days after their passing away; the tradition goes back to ancient Egypt and was connected to the mummification process—fanatic Muslims in al-Our waged violent demonstrations against the building of the church. The pelted the village church with stones, burned a Coptic-owned park that parked next the church, and attempted to attack the home of Samuel Alham, members of whose family had been among those beheaded.
The police brought the matter under control, detaining seven Muslims who had led the demonstrations.
Minya Governor Salah Eddin Ziyada intervened and asked the local elders and security chiefs to resolve the problem.
In response to the conciliatory climate and the support they received from the moderate Muslim elders, al-Our Copts withdrew the claims they had made against the seven Muslims whom the police had caught; the seven were then released.
A peaceful agreement was reached in a cordial meeting that included 10 of the village elders, five Muslims and five Copts. The participants were unanimous that the new church would be built; there was no giving in the fanatic Muslims’ demands. It was decided that the new church should be moved from the spot where it would have been built to another piece of land owned by Samalout bishopric and lying at the eastern border of the village. The Copts said they were relieved that both conflicting sides were happy with the decision. The foundation stone has now been laid.
1 April 2015