The most disturbing aspect of the incident involving the recent attack against the Copts in the village of al-Beida in Amriya is not the attack in itself, the damages incurred, or the families rendered homeless; but the preposterous charge brought against them, that of holding prayers without permit.
In bitter scepticism, a Copt from al-Beida joked: “We don’t just need a permit to pray, we need two: one from the security authorities and one from the extremist Muslims that hold sway over the village.”
Not the first
The Amriya incident was not the first in which Copts were charged with worshipping without permit.
In 2009, the police in Samalout, Minya, some 230km south of Cairo, caught 32 Copts who were gathered in a house in the village of Dabbous and were holding a service of prayer and hymns. The Copts were charged with praying without permit; they were later released.
Again in 2009, the Muslim villagers of Ezbet Bushra in Minya waged an attack against the village Copts and set their houses on fire in protest against their holding prayers in a building owned by one of their community. The police arrested a number of Copts and later set them free, but closed the building under the pretext that it was used to hold religious services without permit.
More recently, in 2012 the police questioned the pastor of the Catholic church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in the town of Higaza in Qena, some 550km south of Cairo, for having set up a tin roof above a school owned by the Church, in order to pray under. The village church had been burned in 1993 and the Copts were not allowed to rebuild it ‘for security reasons’. The local Muslims burned the roof and again burned an awning the pastor later set up for prayers in the school courtyard.
Last week, the Copts in the village of Rahmaniya in Qena some 550km south of Cairo were jubilant because they were granted a temporary permit by the security authorities to reopen their local church of the Holy Virgin, after 26 years of closure, again for ‘security reasons’.
Throughout their long history, Egypt’s Copts have always suffered from restrictions, both official and popular, on holding prayers whether in churches proper or in informal buildings in which they would gather to worship. Old praises for the Holy Virgin still sung with gusto today include the clause: “We ask you, Mother of God, that church doors should be open for the faithful”.
In modern times, however, the rampant practice by fanatic Muslims to prevent Copts in Egypt from worship, and the official acquiescence that allows this practice to prevail, violate the country’s Constitution, laws, and international treaties of which Egypt is signatory.
Among the several treaties Egypt has signed is the International Human Rights Law which is the body of international law designed to promote human rights on the social, regional, and domestic levels.
There is also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which, in its Article 18, stipulates that: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.
The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights of which Egypt is signatory decrees that: “Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed. No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms.”
…And Egypt’s Constitution
Successive Egyptian constitutions—Egypt got her first constitution in 1923—have all honoured equality between all Egyptians, and banned all discrimination including that based on religion or belief.
The country’s current constitution, established in 2014, is no different. Its Article 53 reads: “Citizens are equal before the law. They are equal in rights, freedoms, and public duties. There shall be no discrimination among them owing to religion, belief, gender, race, ethnicity, colour, language, disability, social standard, political or geographic belonging or affiliation, or any other reason. Discrimination or inciting hatred is a crime punishable by law. The State takes all necessary measures to put an end to all forms of discrimination…”
Article 64 of the Constitution reads: “Freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom to exercise religious rites and to build places of worship for believers in the heavenly religions are rights regulated by the law.”
Do Christians really need an official permit to hold prayers?
Law expert and Professor of Law at Zagazig University, Nour Farahat, is indignant at al-Beida incident. Commenting on the detention of Copts on the charge of holding religious rights without permit, he says: “Police interference in religious affairs is condemnable. They even dared attribute a charge to the criminal law without any legislation, that of praying without permit.”
Ishaq Ibrahim of the rights organisation The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is equally indignant. “The attack against al-Beida Copts,” Mr Ibrahim says, “has exposed the discriminatory bias of the authorities and the double standards they apply where sectarian violence is concerned, especially in case of practising religious rites.
“We have repeatedly pointed out that the right to practise religious rites in any place, in any form, alone or with others is decreed by the Constitution and the law. Legal restrictions exist only on the building of places of worship. Christians who gather for prayer have never been required to obtain any permit. The arrest or detention of anyone under the pretext of praying without permit is an outright violation of the law and has absolutely no legal backing in the criminal law.”
Mr Ibrahim says that the insistence of the police on applying the rules of the building law in rural areas on churches but not on mosques reflects the rampant exercise of double standards by State officials in favour of a specific group and to the detriment of another, in this case in favour of Muslims and to the detriment of Copts. This sends a negative message to Egyptians that there is no equality, he says.
Jubilation among fanatics
As though in confirmation of Mr Ibrahim’s words, the Muslims of Amriya have posted on social media photos of themselves rejoicing in jubilation at their success in closing a church and posts thanking Allah for their achievement. “Why shouldn’t they?” a young Copt commented. “They can rest assured the State favours them over us.”
MP Tharwat Bekheit has filed a complaint with the judicial inspection against the head of Amriya prosecutor who released the Copts on bail. “He is ignorant of the law,” Mr Bekheit says, “and has taken his decision as though based on the illegality of worshipping without permit. He also charged the Copt Aziz with building a house without licence, even though the house is not owned by Mr Aziz but was sold to the Church. It is obvious the prosecutor was merely seeking to appease the fanatic Muslims; his decisions thus warrant investigation.”
Muslims pray anywhere, anytime
Lawyer Hamdy al-Assiuty confirms that Egyptian law stipulates freedom of belief and in no way bans the practice of religious rites, meaning no citizen may be charged with praying without permit. “Just look around,” he says, “Muslims pray everywhere: in the streets, in workplaces and public venues. They may even, owing to the time and space they use in prayers, disrupt traffic or work and services. No one ever told them they were praying without permit; every one treats the matter as an entitlement. But when Christians pray, the police claim they need permits! That’s the epitome of discrimination and double standards.”
“It’s a catastrophe; a disgrace,” says George Ishaq, member of the National Council of Human Rights, describing what happened in al-Beida. “When the police charge Egyptians with praying without permit, they should be brought to justice for violating the Constitution and the law, and for practising outright discrimination.
For his part, Muhammad Mounir Megahed, Coordinator General of the NGO Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, sees the al-Beida incident as the natural outcome of the infiltration of Wahabi Salafi thought in the State which, deplorably, appears unable to do anything about it. Quite the contrary, Mr Megahed says, religious discrimination goes on unchecked, and peaceful Copts who demand nothing but to have the freedom to pray are penalised.
“In Amriya,” he says, “the worst is not the attack waged against the Copts; it is the appeasement of the fundamentalist Muslims, and the unconstitutional, unlawful charges brought against the Copts.”
TV presenter Dina Farouq mocked the ‘praying without permit’ charge. “Just where from are the Copts required to get that permit?” she taunted. “From the compound of heavenly religions?” She bitterly said that, despite the ongoing revolutionary movement in Egypt that has repeatedly called for social justice, this justice appears more and more elusive. “What occurred in Amriya is vintage religious discrimination by any other name. The Copts have been punished for daring to hope to pray, whereas Muslims are entitled to freely pray anywhere anytime.”
The Beida incident represented fertile material for the sarcasm of satirical writer Ashraf Helmy. Under the title Worship by republican decree, Mr Helmy wrote in the online al-Bawaba news and posted on his Facebook page that we must admit our failure to put an end to religious terrorism. The reason, he wrote, is that extremist thought defends itself by referring to the Constitution articles which say that Islam is the religion of the State and that Islamic sharia is the source of legislation. Add to that the leniency with which the police treat Salafis, and you have an explosive mixture that erupts with hatred.
Mr Helmy then mockingly asks: “Will there come a time when Christians need a permit to pray in their homes? To ask a priest to attend to a patient? To hold thanksgiving praise to celebrate the birth of a baby? Will a priest or deacon need a permit to practice his pastoral role? Will a volunteer worker need approval for the path he takes to visit the sick or needy? Will attending any meeting in church or outside it require a permit? Or participating in a Christian religion class?”
Mr Helmy concludes by exhorting the Egyptian State to take a stand against extremist thought and to ruthlessly apply the law against all and any official who appeases such thought. “Sectarian attacks, falsification of facts, usurpation of the rights of Copts, and those disgraceful conciliation settlements should all come to an end, he says. “Till when will we allow the Salafi scourge to continue to ravage Egypt?”
30 June 2016