Problems on hold
Readers of Watani will find in the next issue a story detailing the horrific incident that took place on 1 December at the 4th-century desert monastery of Abu-Fana (St Epiphanius) 12km north of the Minya city of Mallawi some 300km south of Cairo. Three Copts met their death and four were injured when a wall in the courtyard of the 6th-century church collapsed and fell on them.
The monastery, its old buildings and church are listed with the Ministry of Antiquities, and are subject to Law 117 of 1983 for preserving antiquities. The law stipulates that no building, wall, fence, or any part of a listed building may be altered or changed and that, if needs be, any maintenance, repairs or restoration work can only be done upon approval of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and under its direct supervision.
The sad truth is that the collapse of the wall at the monastery did not come all of a sudden. Rather, it exposes a history of official negligence and procrastination that goes back 11 years in time, and does not only concern the old church and adjacent buildings, but also the fencing wall that should have stretched around the monastery grounds to protect the monks and monastery. This lack of defence barrier has subjected the monastery over the years to repeated attacks by the Bedouin in the surrounding desert, termed “Arabs” by the locals, in which the monks were assaulted and monastery buildings and cells damaged and burned. Finally, in 2008, Minya Governor issued a decision that a fencing wall should be built around the monastery. Construction of the wall began but was halted halfway through, meaning the monastery was accessible to outsiders and assailants. Ever since, the monastery has been addressing the Ministry of Antiquities to sanction completion of the wall, but to no avail.
In fact, as far back as 1987 the monastery had placed before the Ministry of Antiquities two demands: to build a fencing wall to protect the monastery and its grounds, and to restore the old church that has been falling into decline over the centuries. The monastery’s requests remained unanswered by the Ministry, under the pretext that they were being studied, even when the monastery repeated its demands in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2016, and 2017. It was impossible for the monastery to do any repairs or construction on its own because this was plain illegal. And the Ministry did nothing, nor did it allow the monastery to do anything.
Now that the wall has collapsed and claimed three lives, will any of the relevant authorities investigate the matter? Will those who since 2008 put on hold the monastery’s urgent needs be taken to account? Will anyone be questioned on 11 years of official stalling? Will the Ministry of Antiquities hasten to repair the 6th-century church and wall? Or will the Ministry be content with mourning the victims and wishing a speedy recovery for the injured? As though nothing needs to be done?
12 December 2019