It is now fairly obvious that Coptic rights to build or restore their places of worship will remain indefinitely on hold as long as these rights remain captive to odd measures that can at best be branded as due to ‘absence of political will’.
One need only bring up the issue of equality between Egyptians where legislation on building and restoring places of worship is concerned, for the argument: “Is this the time for it? Can’t you see how [poorly] the country is faring?” to be flung in your face. As if Coptic rights were some kind of diversion or luxury that ought not be brought up till all national, economic and social—and maybe even cultural and sports—issues are settled.
For more than four decades, and until the 25 January 2011 Revolution, Copts have anticipated—in vain—an end to the injustices and marginalistion inflicted upon them. After the 2011 Revolution and the promise it carried for social justice, the Copts thought they were nearer their goal than at any other time. They looked forward to emerge out of the dark tunnel, to have their dignity restored, and full citizenship rights and equality between them and their fellow Muslims instated. But their hopes were dashed as attacks against their lives, churches, homes, property and businesses persisted while the State looked on, disgracefully helpless to restore its lost dignity or to empower the rule of law and bring criminals to justice. Repeated promises by the first post-revolution premier Essam Sharaf went unmet; vanished with the following cabinet of Kamal al-Ganzouri; were disremembered by the Military council all through its time in power; and were finally and to date utterly disregarded by Egypt’s first post-Revolution president Mohamed Mursi.
Even before he took office, Dr Mursi made countless assertions that he would be a president for all Egyptians, and that there would be Copts among his aides. I am afraid that Dr Mursi considers that now that he has indeed included Copts in his administration he has fulfilled his commitment to the Copts. He should know, however, that Copts see the appointments as a formality which has not closed the file of Coptic grievances that none in his administration even looked at, and that cannot be closed just because a few Coptic names figure among the President’s aides.
Last week I tackled the terror inflicted upon the Copts at the hand of hardline Muslims and which, in the absence of any protection by the law or the authorities, works to make the Copts feel aliens in their own land. At one point the anguish is sufficiently intolerable for them to cry for the help of any foreign authority or State willing to offer them immigration or asylum. I said that as long as we Egyptians refrain from addressing the hardship, there can be no one but ourselves to blame.
Today I cite another dire instance which commonly threatens Copts, and before which the authorities stand powerless and the law impotent. With no legislation to ensure the rights of Copts to build or restore their churches—equally to Egyptian Muslims—they have no option but to swallow their pain and pride, and succumb to their destiny.
Today’s instance concerns the church of Mar-Mina in the village of Daramalli, in Beni Sweif some 100km south of Cairo. The church authorities had obtained a permit by the local building authority, approved by the governor, to replace the church’s old dilapidated wooden roof with a new concrete one. As soon as the work started a hardline Salafi mob demanded that construction should be halted. When they knew the work was being carried out by official licence, they presented a malicious complaint to the authorities, alleging that the construction work violated the permit. The allegation was unsubstantiated, but the Salafis were certain they would intimidate the authorities sufficiently for the work on the church roof to be halted.
This was exactly what happened. Even though the permit did not involve any new building and was simply limited to replacing the old wooden roof with a new concrete one, which the building authority could very easily have inspected without halting the work, the authorities immediately ordered a halt to the construction. Additionally, they required the priest to sign a pledge that no work would resume till an official committee inspects the church and writes a report to the governor. All for no reason but to appease the Salafis.
A commission from the building authority inspected the work and found it fully conformed to the official permit; previous inspections had been made by the head of the town of Beni Sweif, the head of the building department, the head of the local government, and the chief intelligence officer of Beni Sweif. After the work was halted for about a month, a second commission was formed to measure the area of the church—after the first commission proved that there were no violations to the license. The second commission issued its report that the area of the church had not been increased by a single square meter after the work on the roof started, and that this work conformed to the permit. Finally, the church was allowed to resume the works under strict monitoring (!!!) by the building authority.
The problem is over; that is, unless the Salafis have in store for us more surprises. Yet the real problem is that Copts and their churches are still under siege in their own land. No matter how law-abiding, they have to constantly prove themselves innocent of unjust, malicious, unanticipated allegations, while the State gives in to pressure by hardliners, and remains unable to defend the Copts. All of which inevitably leads to the question: when will the legislative flaws that root the injustices against Copts be tackled? Where are the long-awaited anti-discrimination law and the unified law for places of worship? And where are Dr Mursi’s pledges?
23 September 2012
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