In the space of a single week that began 22 October, four churches in Upper Egypt were closed down by the police: three in Minya some 250km south of Cairo, and one in Sohag some 460km south of Cairo; and the possible closure of another church in Minya.
Because of the dire need for churches, all five de facto churches had been built or established without licence. The Church, however, has officially applied to legalise their status according to the Law for Building and Restoring Churches that was issued in 2016. Moreover, the law is very explicit that no place where religious rites are practised could be closed down.
The series of closures began when the Muslim villagers of Ezbet al-Qeshiri in Nazlat Asmant, Abu-Qurqas, Minya, attacked on 22 October a Coptic community service building in the village. The building is owned by Minya Bishopric and is commonly known as the church of Anba Moussa (St Moses). The first floor houses a reception hall and a nursery that serves 38 children aged 2 to 4, the second floor houses the church.
The extremists attempted to break into the building; when they could not they set its iron gate on fire and damaged the CCTV camera on top of the gate. The police hastened to the village, cordoned it off, and restored security, but caught no culprit. Minya Governor Essam al-Bedeiwi later said that 11 men had been defined as the perpetrators of the violence, and the police would catch them. So far, however, none have been caught.
Ezbet al-Qeshiri is home to some 1000 Copts who used to pray at the church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in the nearby village of Nazlet Asmant till 2015 when Anba Moussa’s was established.
The locals say the existence of the church was no secret; the police even secured the place and its visitors. They told Watani that no one had anticipated any trouble. Yet, after Muslim sunset prayers on Sunday 22 October, a mob of some 60 men marched from the local mosque against the church, screaming: “no matter what, we’ll bring the church down”, and “Islamic! Islamic!” meaning the village has to be entirely Islamic. The mob, after failing to storm the church, smashed the car of Fawzy Labib, a Copt, and hurled stones at Copts’ houses, inflicting injuries on Atef Shafiq, Boctor Nadi Yassa, and Ibrahim Ishaq Yanni.
Copts ‘conciliate’; church remains closed
The Copts of al-Qesheri were pressured into ‘conciliating’ with the Muslim villagers.
A local Copt who asked to remain unnamed told Watani the Copts had received messages from unknown persons that the police intended to catch a number of Copts and Muslims who they suspected had aroused the violence. This brought on threats from the Muslim villagers that the Copts would be violently attacked if any Muslim were caught, and that they had better ‘conciliate’.
Conciliation is a term used to describe the traditional out-of-court process through which two disputing parties reach a settlement, and it pre-requires that all involved should relinquish all legal rights. In case the dispute involves Copts, who are overwhelmingly the wronged party, the terms of the settlement are extremely unjust to them, which is why they never of their own accord agree to conciliation; more often than not they are pressured, threatened, or forced to agree.
In case of al-Qesheri, the Copts said they feared for their children’s safety, especially given that they were never accorded support by the police. On the eve of the intended conciliation, the village Muslims made a show of force by gathering in large numbers in front of the mosque near the church. Even though they did not attack the Copts, the local source said, the antagonism was palpable.
The following day, the conciliation agreement was signed: the Copts relinquished their legal rights, and the church remains closed.
Sit-in in closed church
The church of the Holy Virgin and Mar-Girgis (St George) in the village of Sheikh Alaa’ in Minya was founded in 2015, the only church in the village. It is housed in a 170sq.m two-storey building purchased by Minya Bishopric in 2014. The first floor incudes a reception hall and offices; the second includes the church.
Once the building was purchased, the bishopric renovated it and prepared the upper floor to serve as a church. It was almost complete when extremist Muslim villagers attacked it, destroying the furnishings and a large portion of the interior. The police hastened to close the building under the pretext of avoiding violence against the Copts, but caught no culprit.
The building remained closed till last month when the priest Fr Moussa Thabet, encouraged by the 2016 law for building churches, decided to reopen it. He held Mass there; it was attended by hundreds of villagers who were elated to finally be able to worship in a place in their village. But the same extremists who had attacked the church two years ago attacked it again. Again, the police decided to close the building and, again, no culprit was caught.
This time, however, the Copts refused to leave the church and, in a gesture of protest, some 70 of them conducted a sit-in inside the church. The police closed the doors, so the neighbours started hurling food and drink on the church rooftop from adjacent rooftops for those trapped inside.
An arrangement was reached with the police whereby the people inside left; only Fr Moussa remained in the building with three deacons. The police allow foodstuffs in, but no one is allowed to go in to them, nor are they allowed to leave. Fr Moussa prays daily Mass with the deacons.
On Friday 27 October, the Coptic villagers of Ezbet Zakariya in Minya were attacked by a Muslim mob who protested against the worship of the Copts in a de facto church in the village. They threw stones at the Copts and broke the doors to their homes, wounding a Coptic woman. The police surrounded the church so that it incurred no damage. No culprit was caught, however, since the mob had quickly dispersed once the police arrived. The police closed the church for fear of further violence.
The 1800-strong Coptic population in Ezbet Zakariya have been for decades using an old building for worship, under the name of the church of Mar-Girgis (St George). It is that church that was recently attacked by the Muslim mob. A few weeks ago, the Copts renovated that building to include a pre-school nursery. The local security authorities assigned guards to protect the building.
The locals say that the attack against the Copts came on account of a flier circulated in the village, under the title: “We opened the church in spite of you”. The flier was made to appear as though written by Copts, even though, according to the locals, no Copt in his right mind would antagonise the Muslims by drafting such a flier. The flier, they say, was circulated to create unrest which would then be used as a pretext to close down the church. This is exactly what happened.
The police caught 15 men in connection with the violence, but it is not known whether they included any Copts.
Muslims ‘complain’ against Copts
The church of the Holy Virgin in al-Karm in Minya was closed because the Copts brought in mortar and cement to repair the floor of the church, but this led the Muslim villagers to believe that the Copts intended to expand their church. They filed complaints with the police who, fearing sectarian unrest, closed down the church. The church serves some 1000 Copts.
In case of al-Hager in Sohag, where the church of the Holy Virgin and the Saints Mar-Girgis and Abu-Seifein had stood since 2013, the police said they received complaints from Muslim villagers against the church, and thus decided to close it and disconnect its electricity and water supply. The four-storey building housed a church, a home for the pastor, a centre for social services, and a pre-school nursery. It serves 3000 Copts.
Minya Bishop: Extremists have the upper hand
Anba Macarius, Bishop of Minya, issued a statement that tackled the police closure of the Minya churches. It was titled: “Following the opening of two closed churches in Minya upon intervention by President Sisi, three other churches closed”.
The statement said that the Church had kept silent when a church was closed down two weeks ago, hoping that authorities would live up to their responsibility [to implement the law], but another church was closed, then a third, and a fourth appeared to be on its way to closure by the police.
“It is as though worship is a crime that Copts have to be penalised for,” the statement said. Given that the churches closed are the only ones in their respective villages, the Copts have to move to neighbouring villages to pray, “which places an added burden on their shoulders for the mere reason that they wish to worship”.
Anba Macarius said that during the last two weeks, Copts were attacked and their homes and property damaged, yet there has been no retribution. Instead, under the pretext of ‘peaceful co-existence’, the Copts alone—never their attackers—were made to sacrifice their rights. “When Copts are attacked, the local official response is invariably disillusioning: churches are closed and Copts pressured into accepting injustice.”
The statement said that, even after official confirmation by President Sisi that Copts are Egyptian citizens with the same rights and duties as Muslims, and after the law for building churches was passed in 2016, there are fears that extremists would still have the upper hand and that State officials would give in to them.
The statement ended with: “Despite the bitterness that fills Copts, we cite our confidence that Minya Governor, security officials, and apparatuses would during the coming days work to alleviate the agony of Copts.”
Governor: No official bias
On the evening of Sunday, 29 October Minya Governor Essam al-Bedeiwi issued a statement, commenting on that of Anba Macarius which had been issued that same morning.
Governor Bedeiwi said that the apparatuses, officials, and Governor of Minya, firmly believed in the right of every Egyptian to practise his or her religious rites in freedom and with ease. “Since I was shouldered with the responsibility of governor in 2016, I have put the issue of places of worship, especially those that concerned Christians, on my priority list. This was owing to my belief that there can be no serious development in Minya or in Egypt as a whole as long as our problems remain unresolved, especially problems commonly termed ‘sectarian’.
“Development cannot be achieved as long as our domestic problems are spotlighted in a manner that arouses the reservations of all who care about the religion they belong to, giving the impression that State institutions are biased in favour of one disputing party against the other.”
The Governor’s statement declared that the Copts were attacked during the last few days in two villages only. One was Ezbet Zakariya; 15 have been arrested by the police on account of the violence. The other was al-Qesheiri where 11 have been defined as the perpetrators of violence and would be caught as soon as a permit is issued by the prosecution.
As to the villages of Sheikh Alaa’ and al-Karm, the Governor said, no violence was waged against the Copts there, therefore no one was caught.
Bishop: Claiming rights is no hardline
Governor Bedeiwi stressed that the governorate was keen to respond positively to any demands by the bishopric, confirming thus that it does not discriminate against any Egyptian. He said that during the period from September 2016 to September 2017, the governorate approved 32 applications by the bishopric.
The statement ended by Governor Bedeiwi stressing that he had confidence in the wisdom and rationality of Anba Macarius, also of his great love for Egypt; and that all problems could and should be resolved through sincere cooperation between the Church and State, which he said, were partners not adversaries.
Anba Macarius, for his part, refused to comment on Governor Bedeiwi’s statement. The Bishop said that he had agreed with the Governor, whom he described as someone he dearly loved, that he would make no comment, since the two men were already in talks about the problems in question. “This despite certain reservations we have to specific clauses in the Governor’s statement,” Anba Macarius said. “Demanding our rights is no hardline behavior,” he explained, “and there are no two disputing parties, but one is offender and the other victim.
“We have placed our grievances before Governor Bedeiwi, and are confident he is sufficiently wise and courageous to resolve the problem and lift the injustice inflicted upon the Copts,” Anba Macarius said.
1 November 2017