Problems on hold
A month ago I wrote about the predicament of the church of the Holy Virgin in the village of al-Galaa’ in Samalout, Minya, Upper Egypt, and referred the matter to President Sisi and Prime Minister Mahlab for official action. The problem as I saw it was not about fundamentalist Muslims terrorising the Coptic villagers into not rebuilding their old dilapidated church despite the fact that all the official rebuilding permits were in order. It was rather about the failure of local officials to enforce the law and uphold State authority. I insisted this was a pitiful example of State feebleness and ineptness in the face of extremist, terrorist groups; and only served to whet the appetite of the terrorists for more ferocious terrorism.
Before I resume tackling the Galaa’ case, however, I wish to draw my readers’ attention to a few positive incidents which recently took place. I do so to confirm that it is definitely not Watani’s sole business to focus on events that negatively impact Copts; we are equally interested in printing positive incidents. On 5 April 2015 Watani reported on the re-opening of the church of Mar-Youhanna (St John) in Abnoub, Assiut. Mar-Youhanna’s had been torched, looted, and destroyed by the Muslim Brothers (MB) on 14 August 2013 amid the torching spree they had then conducted against churches and Coptic institutions—including community centres, schools, and an orphanage—in vengeance for the overthrow of the MB Islamist regime that ruled Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. No less than 100 Coptic churches and institutions, as well as some 1000 homes and businesses, were destroyed at the time. Back then, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, today President Sisi, pledged that the military would reconstruct and renovate what the MB had damaged. Mar-Youhanna’s is the most recent to be reconstructed and renovated by the army. Anba Lucas, Bishop of Abnoub, al-Fateh and Assiut al-Gadida thus expressed the Church’s gratitude to the Defence Ministry and the engineering and projects departments of the Armed Forces.
The same Watani issue carried another positive item: laying the foundation stone of a new church in al-Our, Minya, built in honour of the 21 Christians, among them 20 Copts, beheaded by the Islamic State (IS) in Libya last February. The story covered how the village Muslim elders contained pressures by local Muslim extremists who violently rejected the building of the new church, despite a presidential decree to build it. Let me point out that Minya Governor Salah Ziyada who laid the foundation stone of the Martyrs’ church in al-Our is the same man who was unable to enforce the law when it came to the church in Galaa’. Why? Because in al-Our the matter had nothing to do with the will or authority of the governor; it was the wise local Muslim elders who intervened and saved the day. The question which begs an answer is thus: what if the tables are turned and the fundamentalists triumph in the future? Will the building of the Martyrs’ church in al-Our be halted too?
In case of Galaa’, the 60-square-metre mud brick church of the Holy Virgin has since 1977 served the village’s 1400-strong Coptic population as well as the Copts of the nearby village of Ezbet Shalaby. As the years passed, the congregation swelled while the mud brick building deteriorated. Seven years ago the Copts of Galaa’ applied for a permit to build a new church on a piece of land they owned in the village. The MBs in the village got wind of the matter and quickly erected a mosque adjacent to the Coptic-owned land where the new church was planned. This effectively blocked the construction of the church, since current church building rules in Egypt stipulate that no church may be built adjacent to a mosque; even though mosques may be built next to churches.
The Copts had no choice but to renovate their already existing church and expand it. Two Coptic families who owned houses adjacent to the church decided to donate them to expand the church. The Copts applied for a permit to demolish the old church and build a new wider one. Last January, a permit was issued to this effect by Governor Ziyada. The Copts went directly to work on their project.
The village Islamists, however, terrorised the Copts into halting the work. They burned the Copts’ fields, set fire to their crops, and stole their cattle. They threatened worse wreckage should the Copts insist on building the church which, they insisted, “would only be built over your [the Copts’] dead bodies and those of your children”. The governor and local security chiefs did nothing.
Finally, an official of Samalout Police suggested that the Copts should sit with the village Muslims and work out a solution. The radical Muslims’ conditions: the new church should be erected in place of the old one and should display no Church symbol whatsoever; no cross, dome or bell. It would be built without the foundation that would allow any future renovation and, should the building fall, it can never be rebuilt [This in accordance with an Islamist fatwa (legal edict) on the rules of building churches in Islamic lands]. The Copts rejected the conditions and walked out. They refused to relinquish their right to worship as full Egyptian citizens, and they would not submit to unreasonable, unlawful conditions. They demonstrated in front of Minya governorate, and again last March in Samalout. The Governor promised to take matters in hand but again did nothing.
The natural outcome of the laxity of local authorities in enforcing the law was that the fundamentalists grew more powerful, fierce, and belligerent. They upped their attacks against the Copts, hurled stones at their homes and further ravaged their crops and fields. They demanded a public apology by the village Copts for taking the matter to the media which, once it got wind of the problem, highlighted the injustice the Muslims inflicted on the Copts.
In a final ‘conciliation session’ sponsored by the official Conciliation Committee in Samalout an agreement was at last reached. The Copts saw the agreement as unjust, but said they had to give in for peace to prevail and for them to be able to proceed with building their church. It was decided that the church would be a single storey building and would have a dome but no bell tower. Two men from every Coptic family—in rural Egypt ‘family’ stands for extended family or clan—would pay the Muslims courtesy visits that would work in place of the apology the Muslims had first demanded. The Copts were made to pledge not to take the matter to the media. The agreement was signed by five representatives on each side and, last Wednesday, Governor Ziyada ordered the demolition work to start in preparation for rebuilding the church.
I cannot help wondering whether or not the first cry for help reached President Sisi or PM Mahlab, and whether this one will ever reach them.
19 April 2015