Coptic pain and anger at the official closure of churches to appease extremist Muslims has reached new heights with a recent statement issued by Anba Macarius, Bishop-General of Minya. The statement, issued 13 August 2017, expresses bitter disillusionment at the failure of negotiations with security authorities in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, to reopen churches closed by security order. Such churches had been years or months ago closed for lack of security approval, or in the wake of attacks against Copts, under the pretext that churches represented an offence to Muslim sentiments and were thus a threat to social peace. They remain closed to this day.
The governorate of Minya, which extends some 100km along the Nile bank over an area of 32,279sq.km from 200 – 300km south of Cairo and is home to a 5 million strong population of whom 35 – 40 percent are Coptic, generates 65 per cent of the attacks against Copts in Egypt. The majority of these attacks occur because local Copts attempt to build churches in places where there are no churches, or to repair rundown existing churches. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/why-minya-3/16967/] According to Anba Macarius, the parish of Minya alone, which includes only the capital city of Minya and its immediate surroundings, is home to 15 churches closed by security order, and some 70 villages and hamlets that have no church or any places of Christian worship.
+Muslim sentiments respected; Coptic sentiments?+
Anba Macarius wrote his statement in the wake of month-long negotiations with Minya security officials to reopen a church in the village of Kidwan. The church has been closed since 2012 when the village Muslims attacked the Copts for having held a funeral service there.
The statement reads: “Security apparatuses in Minya have been denying Kidwan Copts their right to practise religious rites, under the pretext that the village Muslims have objected. Security officials explained that the sentiments of Muslim villagers should be respected, implying that Coptic sentiments yearning for a place to pray are not worthy of the same respect. It looks as though the great, sovereign State of Egypt is governed not by law but by those who object to Coptic prayers.
“Current security conditions ban the movement of large gatherings of Copts [for fear of being targeted by terrorist attacks, as in case of the busloads of Copts heading to a desert monastery in Minya last May; they were attacked by Islamist terrorists who killed 28 Copts and injured 25 [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/killed-on-identity/20288/]. We thus attempt to find places where Copts can worship in their own locality instead of having to travel to the nearest site that hosts a church.
“The places we use for worship may be a house, small hall, or even a simple [concealed] room with poor air circulation. Yet even these are officially not to be used for Christian prayer. Egypt’s Constitution guarantees the right to worship but, on the ground, Copts are denied this right according to the personal whim of local officials. Worse, it has become customary for local security apparatuses to monitor the activity of Coptic communities so as to ensure that no Christian prayers are held, even if this implies official use of force against congregations or clerics.”
+Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose+
Coptic anguish, the statement says, is still running high despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of worship and despite President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s attitude and directives to realise equality and justice for all. “Sadly,” the statement declares, “Coptic grievances are unchanged; the methods of inflicting them are still the same; the devices of imposing them have not changed. Every time we move to resolve the problems that cause these grievances we are met with the same lame excuse: the security situation does not allow it. Well, maybe it’s the conscience of some specific official or another that ‘does not allow it’.
“[Even after Egypt in 2013 rid herself of the post-2011 Arab Spring Islamist rule and became a secular State] We are routinely denied permission to open closed churches or build new ones. It has been long years since we built a proper church with crosses, domes, bells, and spire … many of the places we pray in are pitiable for their inadequacy, inconvenient location, and meagre area. Even so, we have accepted that [and made no demands for better Christian places of worship] for the sake of social peace and national security. Yet we have some 15 churches closed by security order, and some 70 villages and hamlets that have no church.”
+Copts are Egyptians; Minya is an Egyptian governorate+
In case of Kidwan, the statement explains, security officials have been insisting that there are objections by Muslim villagers to reopening the church. Even though, Anba Macarius says, such objections are on account of there being no security permit for the church to reopen, and regardless of the right of the public to impose such an objection, security officials have gone along with it instead of upholding and enforcing the rule of law. They did not reply to these objections that the security permit is the responsibility of the State, or that the law stipulates freedom of worship; they simply continued to ban Christian prayer and, in so doing, bowed to Muslim objections.
“The attitude of appeasement is bound to inflame hostilities between Muslims and Copts,” the statement says. “It will work to sow sedition and deepen differences. It will give joy to no one but the extremists who claim the Egyptian State is ‘spoiling’ the Copts.
“We will exercise patience, and not lose hope,” Anba Macarius says in his statement. “We have publicised the matter because it may need intervention by the Cairo apparatuses.
“A reminder: Copts are Egyptians; Minya is an Egyptian governorate.”
Anba Macarius signed the statement and dated it as: Minya, August 2017, in memory of the break-up of the [Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB)] sit-in at Cairo’s Rabea Square on 14 August 2013. [The five-week sit-in was held to protest the overthrow by massive Egyptian revolt of the post-Arab Spring Islamist regime in Egypt.] Anba Macarius was alluding to the consequent vicious revenge the MB who burned some 100 churches and Christian institutions nationwide.
The Egyptian Armed Forces, in collaboration with the Church, rebuilt and renovated all the destroyed churches.
In March 2012, the church of the Holy Virgin and St Paul the Anchorite in Kidwan was attacked and plundered by scores of Muslim villagers in the wake of a funeral service that had been held for one of the village Copts. It was a hate crime that destroyed all the church belongings and broke its iron gate. The police closed down the church, and it remained closed ever since.
Numerous meetings between Anba Macarius and Minya security officials with the purpose of reopening the church achieved nothing, hence his last statement and the hint to Cairo officials to intervene. Obviously, despite his strong reputation for wisdom and patience, he had reached the point where he no longer expected Minya officials to see reason.
The predicament of Kidwan is not unique; Copts in many other villages face the same problem. The photo shows the Copts of Dabbous, another Minya village, as they leave their village on foot and travel to the nearest village to go to church.
13 August 2017