As Pope Tawadros arrived in Samalout last Sunday to begin his memorable three-day visit to Minya, Samalout Copts rushed to welcome him with joy. But outside Samalout bishopric, dozens of Copts from the village of al-Galaa’ gathered not merely in a show of welcome but to send to the media and State officials a vocal message of their suffering at the hands of Islamists in their village. The Copts demanded the intervention of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim to empower them to execute an official permit to renovate and expand their village church in face of the Islamists who were forcibly preventing the Copts from doing so.
No church close to mosque
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 the 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 decided it was thus safest 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 building and build a new expanded church in its place and on the area of the two adjacent houses. Last January, a permit was issued to this effect by Minya Governor Salah Ziyada. 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 refused the conditions and walked out.
The Copts of Galaa have refused to relinquish their right to worship as full Egyptian citizens, and they would not submit to unreasonable, unlawful conditions.
Last Sunday’s protest in Samalout was not the first waged by Galaa’ Copts. Last February they demonstrated in front of Minya governorate headquarters. The Governor then promised them to take matters in hand but, to date, nothing has been done.
4 March 2015