20 March 2011
The Sole church is now being rebuilt…
The evening of last Sunday saw the end of nine days of Coptic protests in the Cairo district of Maspero, in front of the Radio and Television building. The Copts, whose numbers ran into the thousands, and who were later joined by many Muslims, had been demonstrating against the injustice which the Copts of the village of Sole in Etfeeh, Giza, had been subjected to.
The Sole incident
In the wake of the discovery of an illicit affair between a Muslim woman and a Coptic man, the man and his family were forced to leave the village. On the evening of Friday 4 March the Muslim villagers attacked the Copts; burned and pulled down the village church; and vowed to build a mosque in its place. The Copts fled the village; neither the ruling military nor the authorities lifted a finger to help them or solve their problem. When Coptic protestors took to the streets to demonstrate against the injustice, Helwan governor—Sole belongs administratively to Helwan governorate, but is part of Giza parish where the Church is concerned—Qadry Abu-Hussein offered to let the Muslims build their mosque in exchange for giving the Copts a plot of land outside the village to build a new church. This further infuriated the Copts since it would have set a dangerous precedent that Muslims may any time demolish a church and build a mosque in its place while the Copts may be compensated by building another church outside the urban area. Joined with moderate Muslims, the numbers of protestors swelled.
Throughout the week, negotiations between the military, the authorities, the Church, and representatives of the protestors produced some positive results. The Armed Forces promised to directly begin the process of rebuilding the Sole church at its own expense, the Copts of Sole were able to go back to their homes safely, and a reconciliation was achieved between them and the Muslim villagers. The military promised to prosecute the culprits and have them brought to justice.
Last Saturday evening, a delegation of Christian and Muslim clerics as well as a number of public figures went to Sole and visited the land on which the remains of the demolished church stand, which was then under full control of the Armed Forces. The military had already begun the rebuilding process.
The Copts held prayers of thanksgiving and praise amid general elation and sentiments of gratitude that peace was again reigning in the village.
After prayers a public gathering was held during which the village Copts and Muslims expressed feelings of solidarity and compassion.
A number of Coptic and Muslim public figures announced they were donating money towards building the church. In parallel, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb sent out a call to Muslims to help build the Sole church, and warned against any attack waged in the name of Islam against non-Muslim places of worship, stressing that Islam considers such acts criminal. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti issued a recent fatwa—Islamic jurisdiction—which prohibits the demolition of churches.
On Sunday the Military Council and the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met a delegation of Church clergy and representatives of the Maspero protestors to discuss their demands and put an end to the crisis.
The Coptic protestors had posed several demands. They had asked that, in principle, problems pertaining to churches or Church-owned community centres should be tackled within a perspective of citizenship rights and equality among Egyptians. Later in the week, the lawyer Ramsis al-Naggar as representative of Pope Shenouda III filed a petition to the ruling Military Council to reopen the churches and community centres which had been legally established but were at one point closed by the security apparatus and remain closed now. He attached a list of them.
The protestors had also demanded a resolution for the problem of Maghagha bishopric church in Minya. The bishopric had, a couple of years ago, asked for licence to build a new church on a bishopric-owned plot of land adjacent to its old church which had become so dilapidated that it was life threatening and had to be pulled down. In 2010, the Minya governor Ahmed Diaa’ Eddin agreed to issue a permit for a new church only after the old one was pulled down, which the Church directly did. It is one year now since the old church has been pulled down and the governor has been adamantly refusing to issue a permit for the new one. The congregation has been praying in a makeshift marquee which, last January, was brought down by the winter rain.
On Tuesday, to the elation of Maghagha congregation, an official decree was issued to build the bishopric church.
The protestors had also called for the release of Father Matta’os, a priest who has been imprisoned for two and a half years now on charges of forgery for conducting the marriage rites for a Christian man and a Muslim convert. He had been sentenced to five years in prison. Fr Matta’os has been released.
There were also demands that Tassoni (Sister) Mariam, who is spending time in a five-year prison sentence for having facilitated the adoption of a Coptic baby by an Egyptian American family, would be released.
On Sunday evening the protestors left Maspero, promising to demonstrate again on 25 March if the non-met demands remain unanswered. The few demonstrators who insisted on staying on were dispersed by the military.