13 February 2011
Rafah is the first stop on the Egyptian side of the Egypt Gaza border. It was also the first stop for the Holy Family when it fled into Egypt in the first century. The site was a spot on the pilgrimage route from Egypt to Jerusalem ever since such pilgrimages started in the early Christian centuries, but churches built there were later destroyed or fell apart for lack of maintenance.
In 1948, following the Palestinian Israeli war in which the Egyptian army participated, a church was erected in Rafah but was destroyed in 1967 during the Six Day War. In 1984, Father Makary—who later became Anba Makary, bishop of North Sinai until his death in 2000 in a car accident—succeeded in obtaining a presidential decree to build a new church in place of the old one, on a 600 square metre plot of land. In 1995, Pope Shenouda III consecrated the church. The Rafah church is a two-storey building. The lower floor is a church consecrated to St Antony and the upper floor a church consecrated in the name of the Holy Family and St George.
On Saturday 29 January, some 80 masked men attacked the church. They looted the benches, the carpets, the electric appliances, the desks, and even the containers of the saints’ relics. They tried to pull the cross off the dome, then hauled up a gas bottle and blew it up. They set fire to the iconostasis and the windows; the church burned completely. Now only the scorched walls stand.
According to Fr Mikhail, deputy to the bishop of North Sinai, the governor was directly informed and an official report filed with the authorities. So far, he said, the attackers have not been found. Fr Mikhail estimates the losses at about a million Egyptian pounds. Three of the eight containers of the saints’ relics, he told Watani were found, cast along the sidewalk, and were brought back to the church by members of the congregation. Fr Mikhail called upon the authorities to find the remaining containers and bring them back.
Fr Youssef Sobhy of the Holy Family church, told Watani that the Holy Family church serves some 12 extended families in Rafah, and also serves the Christians in all the surrounding area. The nearest church is the one in Arish, some 50km west. The entire region of North Sinai has only four churches, he said; the bishopric had applied for a permit to build a fifth church in the district of Beer al-Abd, but has so far not been granted that permit.
North Sinai bishop Anba Qozman informed Pope Shenouda III of the attack against the Rafah church directly after it occurred. The Pope, however, decided to refrain from announcing the news then in order to avoid a sectarian crisis while Egypt was already going through turbulent times.