Christians still face discrimination against churches

For decades the construction and renovation of churches in Egypt have been obstructed by complex bureaucracy, resulting in the deterioration of church buildings and a shortage of places of worship for Christians. 

Bishop Anba Macarius stated that in his diocese alone, which includes only Minya city and its immediate surroundings, 15 churches that have been closed by security order, and 70 villages have no church or any place to hold Christian worship. The shortage of churches has forced Christians to hold religious services in unauthorised premises, often incurring harsh penalties from the authorities as a result.

In the latest case, an Egyptian court in Giza governorate on 31 January found 15 people guilty of attacking a Coptic church south of Cairo, and also fined a Coptic man for illegally hosting the church on his premises.

On 22 December a large group of Muslims gathered at the church building after Friday prayers, following a rumour that a church bell was to be put on the top of the building and that it would be turned into an official church. The mob broke into the building and vandalised the interior, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is the greatest”).

The 15 attackers were given one-year suspended jail sentences and a fine equivalent to US$28 each for “inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity and vandalising private property.”

However, the Coptic owner of the premises in the village of Kafr al-Waslin received a fine equivalent to $20,500 for hosting a church without a licence. The building had served as a meeting room for Copts and a nursery for over 15 years.

The local diocese had applied for a church license after the government passed its new church-building law in 2016. In October 2017 a cabinet committee started work on the legalisation of unlicensed churches, having received 2,650 requests from Coptic parishes waiting for a permit or license to renovate or build. Earlier this year the Ministry of Housing announced that Christians were allowed to meet in unlicensed churches while their registration applications were processed.

Several churches in rural villages have had to be closed for security reasons owing to tension between radical Muslims and Copts. After local Muslims had reportedly complained that Christians were meeting illegally in the village of Ezbat Al-Forn in the Minya governorate, Copts were stopped from holding mass at a private home because they had no permit. Bishop, Macarius said that “Muslims in the village have never objected to the prayers of the Coptic Christians in any place in Ezbat al-Forn.” The local authorities are reportedly “considering” the Christians’ request for a license to hold religious services at the residential property.

The Bishop expressed his disillusionment “at the failure of negotiations with security authorities in Minya to reopen churches closed by security order” because churches either lacked security approval or were considered offensive to Muslims and therefore a threat to social harmony.

World Watch Monitor has reported that Copts have experienced similar problems in the villages of Kom El-Loufy, El-Galaa, and also in Saft el-Khirsa – a town of around 12,000, including approximately 70 Christian families, which has ten mosques but no church. In the village of Dabbous in Samalout, near Kom El-Loufy, Copts have not been able to meet in their church since 2005.

The governorate of Minya, south of Cairo, has a population of 5 million people, of whom 35-40 percent are Copts. It has experienced the greatest number of sectarian attacks, with more than 75 targeting Christian residents in the past six years.

ACN Malta