Problems on hold
Watani came out last Sunday with the main headline reading: “Awaiting the empowerment of the Constitution: the rebuilding of Galaa’ church in Minya banned”. The headline referred to a feature printed in the paper and exposing an instance of flagrant injustice against the Copts. The story is a slap in the face of citizenship rights and the rule of law in Egypt. And lest someone thinks I am writing this to call for rebuilding the church, let me stress that I rather write in horror, protest and outrage at the failure of the administrative and security authorities to uphold the law and defend State authority in the face of extremist, terrorist groups who insist on bringing them down.
The Constitution Egyptians established with a landslide majority in January 2014 is unprecedented in that it roots citizenship rights and full equality among Egyptians. It also stipulates in its transitional articles that the first elected parliament after establishment of the Constitution is shouldered with the responsibility of swiftly enacting a law for the freedom of building and renovating churches. I have hence taken to reassuring those worried about the issue of the building of churches and opening closed ones that it is but a matter of time that the necessary law would be passed. I urged patience, confident that the new Constitution embeds and secures the right to build and renovate churches.
I never imagined that the ugly, oppressive practices to which Copts have long been prey when it came to their churches would go on unchecked. It is not only the fanatics who are to blame, but also the State officials who fail to uphold the spirit of the Constitution, as if the State can do nothing till the new law is enacted. These officials appear to forget that any compromise on enforcing the law and upholding State authority results in the calamitous stiffening of the groups who defy the law. In the end, we are left with out-of-control extremist groups that cannot be possibly contained or tamed once the new anticipated law is passed. Our officials should know better; Egypt learned this lesson the hard way countless times before.
Before going into the details of the Galaa’ church case, let me point out that the media’s stance towards the issue has been nothing if not abominable, and has succeeded in practically obscuring it. While the media reported extensively on the recent visit to Minya by Pope Tawadros II, and elaborated on his thanks to President Sisi for his positive initiative towards the Copts, it merely brushed over the protest held at Samalout by the Galaa’ Copts. Mention was made of dozens of Galaa’ demonstrators demanding that the Pope should intervene with the officials concerned to allow the renovation of the old village church. But there was not the least attempt to expose the scale or details of the calamity.
I am not about to elaborate on the details of the predicament of the Galaa’ church; Watani already went into that last week. I will only highlight the main features in order to put the case before the President and Prime Minister, calling on each of them to shoulder his responsibility in rectifying the crooked, unlawful issue. At stake are Coptic citizenship rights, the rule of law, and the dignity of the State.
• Some 1400 Copts live in the village of Galaa’, Samalout. They pray in the mud brick church of the Holy Virgin, which was built 38 years ago over 60 square metres. With the dilapidation of the church building and the growing number of worshippers, the Copts applied to the authorities to build a new, bigger church on another plot of land that they owned. They acquired an official permit from Minya Governor for this purpose seven years ago, in 2008.
• The local authorities, however, came up with a number of procedural obstacles. This was sufficient for the Islamic fundamentalists in the village to hasten to erect a mosque on a land adjacent to the Coptic-owned land where the new church was planned, then object to the erection of a church next to the mosque. Meaning that it was halal (lawful in Islam) to build a mosque on land adjacent to a prospective, officially licensed church, but haram (sinful) for a church to be built next to a mosque. Granted, such irresponsible polemics could have only taken place through the complicity of officials. The devastated Copts were forced to go back to their old church.
• In an attempt to solve their problem, the Copts bought two houses adjacent to their old church, and applied for a permit to demolish the old church building and build a new expanded church in its place and on the area of the two adjacent houses. On 31 January, Minya Governor Salah Ziyada issued an approval to replace, renovate and expand the church. The Copts were elated; they felt the permit was issued under a new era of full citizenship rights and a State that does not tolerate extremism or terrorism. It did not take them much to discover how mistaken they were. No sooner had the Copts started on their church project than the radical Muslims pounced on them, obstructing the works. Neither the governor nor the security authorities were able to enforce the law. The Copts stood dumbfounded before the inability of those in authority to deter the extremists. The final stroke came with the suggestion by the deputy to Samalout Police Inspector that the Copts should try to appease the village Muslims.
• When the Copts were humbled into the realisation that the local authorities could not or would not protect them, they submissively went to appease the village Muslims—no, the village fanatics. They forced the Copts to sit to a conciliation session where they placed their conditions: the church should be erected on its original site; it should bear no Christian symbols, no cross, dome, or bell; it should be a single floor and without the foundation that would allow any future renovation. Copts are not to refurbish or renovate the church, and should it fall down it cannot be rebuilt. These conditions must be signed by the Copts and registered with the State notary, the extremists demanded. Let me remind you that all this was done under the nose of the local officials.
• The Copts rejected these abominable conditions and walked out; I insist they should never have agreed to sit to that ‘conciliation’ in the first place. They held a protest in front of Samalout Bishopric during the Pope’s visit, hoping that their voices would reach the higher authorities. Do I need to spell out that by ‘authorities’ I mean the President and the Prime Minister, and not Minya Governor or Security Chief since both are responsible for this scandal in the first place?
15 March 2015