Problems on hold
A common Egyptian proverb says: “Beauty is never perfect”, meaning that no matter how beautiful a person or thing is, they are bound to lack something or other; falling thus short of perfection. I am reminded of this saying whenever I contemplate equality and citizenship rights in Egypt. Even though these values are unequivocally endorsed by our Constitution, on the ground they are occasionally compromised.
In my editorial dated 14 July, I expressed happiness at three recent instances that pertained to Copts and Coptic-related issues. [http://en.wataninet.com/opinion/editorial/good-news-about-copts-and-coptic/30000/]. I welcomed the establishment of the first Coptic Studies departments in EgyptIan universities, at Alexandria University and Damanhour University, after long decades of fanatic, deliberate exclusion. I saw the move as signalling the beginning of the end of unreasonable fanaticism in academic circles. I also applauded the draft of the Family Bylaws for Christians in Egypt, drawn up by the major Egyptian Churches, because it included provisions for gender equality in inheritance as opposed to the sharia-based rule of men inheriting shares double those of women, a rule that would have applied had the Family Bylaws for Christians not stipulated otherwise. The third piece of good news was the Cabinet’s approval to legalise 127 unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings.
Today, however, I feel pained and worried as I again pick up the thread of the longstanding problem of churches closed by the police “for security reasons”. The ongoing crisis of closed churches is agonising to the Copts who built them, in most cases under financial and social duress, only to have them forcefully closed. They feel oppressed, humiliated, and bitter on account of being deprived of worship in their villages, and suffer the added burden of having to travel elsewhere to practice their religious rites. Occasionally, they are forced to accept the ‘unacceptable’, as in the Minya village of Koum al-Raheb some two weeks ago when they had to hold the funeral of a member of their congregation in the street, since their village church had been closed by the police. Given that it was difficult for the bereaved Copts to transport the body to the nearest village that had a church, especially in the searing hot weather, the family of the deceased had no option but to hold the funeral in the street, amid a general sense of distress and fury. The police had closed down the Koum al-Raheb church in December 2018 because the building did not have the approvals or licence required by the 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches, a law passed to facilitate the building of churches following centuries of near-impossibility to do so. It was during those years that Copts, hard-pressed because of their growing congregation and declining churches, resorted to building unlicensed ones.
Koum al-Raheb, however, is not a lone case of closed churches; not a few churches that had applied for legalisation according to the 2016 law were closed. The closures starkly violate the law which rules that, once a church has applied for legalisation, it may not be closed but should freely operate until it gains official legality.
We can neither understimate nor overlook the painful experiences lived by some Egyptians, no matter how small their number or how remote a village they live in. We cannot turn a blind eye to their suffering, under the pretext that they are not representative of the majority of Copts; especially that equality and citizenship rights were stipulated by the Constitution to cover not only the majority of citizens, but to apply to all, without discrimination, marginalisation or belittlement.
In this context, I recall what I wrote on past incidents of church closure. On 6 March 2019 I wrote:
“Let us candidly admit that not a month passes, sometimes not a week, without news of hostile terroristic mob action against Copts, especially in villages or towns in Upper Egypt where fundamentalism blooms; the “independent republic of Minya” naturally tops the list. It has become regular practice to besiege places of worship of Copts, terrorise them, threaten them, harass and assault them, all under the nose of helpless State representatives. State officials, whether politicians or administrative or security personnel, brag about preserving social peace [between Muslims and Copts], their only tool of trade being to appease the Muslim mob by closing down the Copts’ places of worship. They appear oblivious to how much, in so doing, they jeopardise State authority and compromise the rule of law. They end up throwing to the wind citizenship rights, equality, and the protection they should offer Copts as the Egyptian citizens that they are. More importantly, they disparage the Constitution which stipulates rights and freedoms.
“We must take care not to deceive ourselves with all sorts of cover-up of the horrid daily reality many Copts undergo. Neither constitutional provisions of equality, rights and freedom; good actions and talk by President Sisi about the right of every Egyptian to worship and pray as he or she pleases; nor the wisdom and patriotism of Pope Tawadros who famously said: “A homeland without churches is better than churches without a homeland”; nor the message of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, who said Islam tolerantly protects churches; can obscure the fact that there are Egyptian Copts who experience neither equality nor freedom, nor can they exercise their constitutional rights. All claims to patriotism lose meaning for citizens whose real-life experience gives the lie to these claims. Many Copts thus stand suspicious of them; their lives brim with oppression and humiliation on account of their being Coptic; they see no citizenship rights, no State authority, no rule of law.”
The above words are as apt today as they were before. The Arabic proverb goes: “How similar is today to yesterday.” Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
28 July 2019