Problems on hold
For Egypt’s Copts, 2018 started on a hopeful note. On the evening of 6 January—Coptic Christmas Eve—they celebrated Midnight Mass at the new Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, partially opened to host the celebration. One year earlier, on 6 January 2017, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi had visited St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya before the start of Midnight Mass to wish Pope Tawadros and the Coptic congregation a happy feast; there and then the President announced that Egypt’s largest cathedral would be built alongside its biggest mosque in the new Administrative Capital. He promised the Copts that the next time they celebrate Christmas Midnight Mass it would be at the new cathedral. The President lived up to his promise.
The morning of that same day, 6 January 2018, had seen another move that gave rise to comfort and hope to Copts, since it related directly to one of their major grievances: that of church building and freedom of worship. For centuries on end, Copts had found it next to impossible to obtain official licence to build a church or renovate an existing one. Given the growing population and the dire need for churches, Copts resorted to worshipping in de-facto churches with no licence. Finally, in September 2016, a law for building churches went into effect, with the promise of easing the licensing of new churches and legalising the status of already existing non-licensed churches. The law included an explicit provision that churches applying for legalisation may not be closed. On the ground, however, this did not materialise; Copts continued to suffer the injustice and pain of having their churches attacked by fundamentalists while the police failed to protect them or secure their right to worship, and of having churches closed by the police to appease the fanatics and allegedly maintain social peace.
It was thus with huge comfort that all Church leaders received a circular from the Ministry of Housing on 6 January 2018 to the effect that, according to the 2016 Law for Building Churches, no unlicensed church that has applied for legalisation of status may be closed for any reason. The circular, which was addressed to Father Mikhail Antoun, representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Cabinet’s Committee for legalising unlicensed churches, read:
“With reference to Law 80 of 2016 for Building and Restoring Churches, concerning legalisation of status of churches, and regarding your request, we have addressed 14 governorates with directions not to halt religious rites in churches that have filed applications for legalisation of status to the [Cabinet] committee charged with that. Attached are copies of these letters.”
For the past two years Watani repeatedly reported on cases in rural and Upper Egypt where Christian worship was impeded and churches closed by the police. This came in response to attacks waged against these churches by fundamentalists; under the pretext of maintaining peace, local authorities preferred to appease the fanatics rather than protect the Copts and enforce the law.
We are all well aware of the difference between terror attacks and strikes by fundamentalists. Terror attacks target Egypt in its entirety and hits Egyptians indiscriminately; the State exerts huge efforts to abort and confront such attacks. Attacks by fundamentalists, however, flagrantly defy the law by attempting to ban Copts from worship. Fundamentalists resent the very existence of a church in their neighbourhood. It has reached the point where Copts are attacked on the mere suspicion that a Christian who builds or renovates a house intends to convert it into a church. This brings on destruction and collective punishment against the Copts.
The State’s failure to defend Copts and its giving in to fundamentalist pressure by closing down churches to allegedly ‘preserve social peace’ and ‘protect Copts against attack’ has left Copts pained and embittered. Copts are deprived of their basic citizenship right of protection, State dignity and authority are compromised, and the law is defeated. Coptic humiliation is complete when the fundamentalists, backed by local security and political officials, pressure and threaten the Copts into acquiescing to traditional out-of-court ‘conciliation’ with their attackers, meaning the Copts have to give up their legal rights in the process. The criminals effectively escape non-scathed, and the community’s civic right to exact justice is thrown to the wind.
The sorry state of affairs continued to plague Copts even after the 2016 law went into effect. Closed churches were not opened even after applying for legalisation, and others were additionally closed in the wake of attacks by fundamentalists. Local officials flagrantly defied the law; it is painful that their defiance was never taken to account.
The 6 January 2018 directive by the Housing Ministry is meant to reverse the injustice against the Copts and their churches. If enforced, it would be a blessing that would lead to the reopening of many churches and the empowerment of Copts to exercise their constitutional right to worship. But it would be toothless if local authorities continue to successfully defy it.
Watani will continue to follow up on the matter. The real test is in the on-the-ground application of the directive.
21 January 2018