Year in review: Copts’ right to worship

31-12-2017 09:09 AM

Youssef Sidhom

Youssef Sidhom

Problems on hold

As we bid 2017 goodbye, I wish Egypt and her people a happy, peaceful 2018 full of progress. We welcome the new beginning with hope and hard work; we have before us huge challenges till we could attain the reform, development and stability we aspire for. I feel optimistic about the future, and confident that we are on the right track. The great efforts exerted politically, democratically and economically are all-too-obvious; to say nothing of the courageous, relentless war spearheaded by our army and police against terrorism, fundamentalism and extremism.
However, I am not equally optimistic on other fronts such as education, enlightenment, and citizenship rights. It disconcerts me that the State appears to drag its feet on reforms needed in these fields, and on implementing the Constitutional requirements regarding them.
In this context, I would like to shed light on the issue of the constitutional right of Copts to worship and hold religious rites, which appears to be placed on hold. We started off 2017 with much hope in this regard but closed the year with confusion and disillusionment. With an eye to being objective, I will begin by mentioning the positives points which, nonetheless, ought not eclipse the negatives.
To begin with, I applaud the passage of the long awaited Law for Building and Restoring Churches on 28 September 2016. I extend my gratitude to the State for honouring its pledge to rebuild, restore and open for prayers all the churches that were bombed, burned, destroyed, plundered or damaged at the hand of [Islamist] terrorists, notorious among them were the 84 churches and Christian establishments nationwide—that were destroyed at the hand of the Muslim Brothers on 14 August 2013. [].
I also stand in pride and awe before the commendable almost-miraculous feat of building the new administrative capital’s cathedral, in keeping with the promise made by President Sisi in person to the Copts last Christmas. The momentous work to get that cathedral ready for Midnight Mass on Coptic Christmas Eve, 6 January, is of almost incredible proportions. Watani has been closely monitoring it and will continue to report on it.
Now that I have cited the positives, I can move on to the negatives, which are mainly as follows:
• Throughout 2017, Watani repeatedly covered cases of churches attacked by Muslim fundamentalists, especially in Upper Egypt. Here I do not refer to attacks by terrorists; I mean attacks by Muslims motivated by hostility to Christians. Such Muslims gather in mobs to assault, destroy, loot and burn simple buildings that have for many years been used by their fellow Christian villagers or townspeople as non-licensed de-facto churches, seeing the near impossibility of obtaining official licence to build a church, whereas there exists a dire need for one. Now, with the new church-building law in force, these de-facto churches have applied for legalisation of their status. The Muslim mobs attack these churches because they object to Christian prayers and rites being held in their neighbourhoods; they scream cries against Copts and churches, a famous one being: “No matter what, we’ll bring the church down”. The Copts have repeatedly sought help from the police to protect them and secure their legal and constitutional rights, but were constantly met with quivering security officials who froze the law and preferred to close down churches and overlook the crimes against the Copts, under the pretext that in so doing they maintain ‘social peace’ and ‘protect’ the Copts from assault.
• When officials decide to take action and put an end to hostilities, they more often than not do so in a scandalously disgraceful manner that compromises State dignity and sidelines the law. Under the outrageous pretext of ‘making peace’ and in notorious ‘conciliation’ sessions, the Coptic victims are pressured, even threatened, into ‘conciliating’ with their attackers, dropping thus any claims against them and altogether relinquishing their legal rights. This is done in exchange for granting Copts a semblance of their right. In frustration, fear, and defeat, the Copts give in to that flagrant blackmail once they find that the State officials are incapable of protecting them or implementing the law, and rather prefer the easy way out by appeasing the fundamentalists. In the process, the community’s civic right that culprits be brought to justice, regardless of conciliation with the victim, is foregone.
• The State addressed the case of the Copts of Koum al-Loufi in that exact catastrophic, disgraceful approach. Coptic-owned houses in Koum al-Loufi in Samalout, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, were burned in June 2016 because rumours had circulated in the village that the Copts intended to turn one of the houses into a non-licensed church. The Muslim villagers refused to allow the 2000-strong Coptic population of Koum al-Loufi to worship in the village, let alone build a church. The State imposed on the oppressed Copts an out-of-court conciliation, and forced them to drop their legal claims. The Copts’ and the community’s right that justice should be served has been thrown to the wind. All this because the Copts, after much bargaining, surrendered their right and accepted to be allowed to build themselves a church on the outskirts of the village—not inside the village, mind you. This is typical of how the State compensates fundamentalists by appeasing their rejection of a church in their midst, and allowing them to escape justice.
• The Koum al-Loufi case reveals the behavioural model followed by fundamentalists and extremists across Egypt to intimidate the State and bypass the law. Last week, that same model was replayed in the village of Kafr al-Wassleen in Etfeeh, Giza, where Muslim fundamentalist villagers stormed the village church and destroyed it upon rumour that the church intended to install a bell. The bitter question: Will the State again resort to its by-now customary behaviour?

Watani International
31 December 2017

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