Problems on hold
The story of the Coptic Catholic Church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in the village of Higaza Qibli In Quos, Qena, some 570km south of Cairo, is a sorry one. The church has been the target of a series of assaults by Muslim fundamentalists since 1993; the most recent took place a few weeks ago. The story is distressing and disgraceful not only because it concerns withholding the constitutional and lawful right of Copts to worship, but also because it exposes the feebleness of the local administrative and security apparatuses, their submission to extremist demands, and their failure to defend the Copts against ominous threats and terror. These authorities failed disastrously to ensure that a 1993 court order to complete construction of the church was executed.
The Higaza church was built a little before 1900. Constructed of mud brick and wood, it could not withstand the ravages of time. In 1993, the Coptic Catholic Church obtained a court ruling to demolish the building in view of its life-threatening condition, and build a new one instead on the same site. Every time the Copts attempted to rebuild, however, they were attacked by the village Muslims who insisted they would not have a church in their midst.
The Egyptian State has been adamant about upholding citizenship rights and equality, and waging a vicious battle against terrorism on all fronts in thought and deed. Yet it is flabbergasting that, despite this, certain of its local administrations have failed miserably at confronting extremists and terrorists. In fact, they have appeased the fundamentalists, never taking them to account, and allowing them to run free under the pretext of maintaining social peace. In so doing, officials have assured the terrorists they have nothing to fear on account of attacking the Copts, and have instead pressured the Copts into accepting settlements that defy the principle of equality. In the case of Higaza, the Copts were told they could build a church on the outskirts of the village, some 3km away from the spot on which their legally-backed church should have stood. Then we ask why do the extremists and fanatics get stronger and more vicious? And why have pockets of terrorism remained unvanquished? We appear not to realise that this is because we have not respected the Constitution and the law, and have trifled with the authority of the State.
I remind everyone that the Higaza church is not the first such case nor is it a lone incident; others have faced the same fate in various places. Worse, they will not be the last as long as crowds of hate-filled fundamentalists can rest assured they would never be brought to justice.
It is no good to attempt to obscure these flagrant instances of discrimination against Copts by pointing at the positive changes in their favour. No good to tout the 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches, the legalisation of unlicensed churches, the Cathedral of the Nativity in Egypt’s new capital still under construction, or even the courteous relations that prevail among Church leaders and State officials. The fact that any number of Copts, no matter how few or in what remote village, are deprived of their rightful freedom to worship in fully licensed churches, allegedly to maintain social peace but actually for local officials to appease fundamentalists, can never be covered up by honeyed, hollow talk. And if some local administrative or security officials have no qualms about trifling with Copts, how can they callously trifle with the dignity and authority of the State they represent, handing over its sovereignty and judicial supremacy to those who have no respect for them?
What took place in Higaza exposes disgraceful official failure to confront fundamentalists and uphold the law. It reached the point where local officials did not hesitate to negotiate with the Church about moving the church in question to a spot close outside the village. Out of sheer despair of regaining a right they had lost for a full 26 years, the Copts have accepted the offer. However, can anyone guarantee that what they suffered at the old site of their church would not recur at the new one? Does anyone realise that the church site has changed but the sick, fanatic minds have not because there was no one to check them? Or that the resolution for the Higaza predicament, figured out by some genius local official, sends the message to fundamentalists in various places that they have nothing to fear; they would never be brought to account; they could go on and do what their peers in Qena did?
Did anyone stop to think that when the Higaza church gave up its original site, the Egyptian State practically relinquished its authority?
6 November 2019