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memri
October 31, 2017 No.
1355

Articles In Egyptian Press Condemn Security Forces For 'Extremist' Anti-Copt Measures

By: C. Meital*

The issue of discrimination against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority has resurfaced recently in the Egyptian media. The renewed debate follows claims that the security forces, submitting to pressure by Islamist elements, are depriving Copts of their freedom of worship by repeatedly failing to uphold the new law on the construction of churches that was passed in parliament last August.[1]

Copts claim that they are facing discrimination by the regime institutions, despite their support of President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi during the June 30, 2013 revolution that brought him to power, support that makes them his natural partners. In particular, they protest several incidents in which security forces prevented Copts from holding prayers in villages in Upper Egypt. For example, in early March 2017, residents of Nazla Al-Nakhl in the Al-Minya Governorate said that the security forces had prevented them from holding prayers on the grounds that this would provoke local extremists to harm them. The security forces said in response that the villagers had tried to hold prayers in an unauthorized church. In August, two more incidents in Al-Minya villages were reported; in one, the security forces reportedly shut down a church in Kidwan village,[2] and in the other, they prevented Copts from holding services in an apartment in Al-Faran village on the grounds that it was not an authorized church, and even blocked roads to prevent the Copts from reaching the area.[3]


Security personnel blocking a road in Al-Faran village to keep Copts from accessing an "unauthorized" church (image: tahrirnews.com, August 20, 2017)

Responding to the security forces' claim that the Copts should avoid provoking extremist villagers, Bishop Macarius of Al-Minya commented that the state is the sovereign and must uphold the law. He noted that over 15 churches have been shut down and about 70 villages have no church at all, which has prompted the Christian religious establishment to seek alternative places of worship, such as apartments, but this too is forbidden. He added: "Although [Egypt's] constitution emphasizes freedom of worship, and even though the president ordered to realize justice and equality as foundations of the state, our suffering sadly continues."[4]

Al-Minya Governor 'Essam Al-Bedewi said that "There is a kind of tension between Muslims and Christians in some parts of the governorate, [but] there is a comprehensive state plan to address the roots of the social and cultural problems that lead to sectarian crises."[5]

Following these events, the Coptic villagers of Al-Faran addressed a letter to President Al-Sisi requesting his help and claiming that they had been deeply humiliated and had been prevented from praying and even from leaving their homes. They wrote further: "In every meeting [with Copts] you [Al-Sisi] stress the improperness of directing offensive expressions at any Egyptian citizen, but today we know that what is happening in practice represents the opposite of your approach, for [we are treated] like criminals and transgressors who must be prosecuted [merely] for practicing their religion."[6]  

It should be noted that the law passed last August allows the construction of new churches and renovation of old ones, which was previously forbidden. The law stipulates that a request for building or renovating a church must be submitted by a representative of the Coptic community to the relevant governor, and the latter must approve the request within four months or else specify his reasons for rejecting it. Furthermore, the size of the church and its annexes must be in proportion to the number and needs of the Christian community in the area.[7]According to Coptic sources, instead of enforcing the law the authorities favor settling conflicts between Muslims and Copts by means of local mediation committees that are not anchored in law.[8]

According to Egypt's state media, some new churches have indeed been constructed in the country. For example, in May 2017 reports claimed that a second church had been inaugurated in the village of Isma'ilia in Al-Minya, built with donations from both Christians and Muslims,[9] and that a new Coptic cathedral is planned to be built in Asyut Governorate.[10]  On the first anniversary of the passing of the new law, the Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' daily, which is close to the regime, reported that the ministerial committee formed for this purpose had been handling procedures for approving new churches and reopening churches that had been shut down, in cooperation with representatives of the various factions in the Coptic church.[11]

Until recently it appeared that the protests and criticism of the regime had borne fruit, for in September 2017 a decision was taken to reopen two churches in Al-Minya, in the villages of Kidwan and Al-Faran. In a September 10 statement, the Al-Minya patriarchy expressed its "gratitude to the president for addressing the complaints of the Copts in the two villages, as well as its gratitude for the good will shown by the interior ministry, the Al-Minya governor and security department, and by the Muslim residents of the [two] villages."[12] Father Athanasius Al-Makari, who hosts programs on Mehwar TV, confirmed that Al-Sisi had met the request of Bishop Macarius  to reopen the closed churches in Al-Minya.[13]

However, although the crisis seemed to have passed following the president's intervention, in October 2017 Copts again complained about the closure of churches in Al-Minya. On October 28, Bishop Macarius announced that four more churches had been closed in the governorate that month, and added: "Our most basic right is the right to pray, which is anchored in the constitution, and we will not stop demanding this right until it is realized. The fear is that, after [the passing of] the church construction law, the emphasis placed on the Copts' rights as Egyptian citizens, the directives of the honorable President, and the repeated promises of equal rights and non-discrimination, the last world will be said by those who wish to impose their will on the state institutions. We categorically oppose this, and the president emphasizes at every opportunity that he opposes it as well."[14] 

In response, Al-Minya Governor Al-Bedewi stated on October 29 that the governorate officials believed in the right of every Egyptian to freely practice his religion. He denied reports by Copts about clashes with locals, and said that his administration was approving official requests by the church regarding houses of worship.[15]

The incidents sparked a debate in the Egyptian media. Many writers, both Copts and Muslims, claimed that the Egyptian establishment takes a two-faced approach: it passes laws guaranteeing the Christians' basic rights, including freedom of worship, but in practice the security forces prevent Copts from exercising their rights. Some writers urged President Al-Sisi to intervene before a tragedy occurs.

Below are excerpts from some of the articles on this issue in the Egyptian press.      

Egyptian Writers: State Institutions Are Rife With Extremism, Fail To Protect The Copts; President Must Enforce New Church Law

'Imad Gad, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament and a columnist for the Egyptian Al-Watan daily, lamented that, despite the passing of the new law, the right to build churches has been denied to the Copts in many cases. He claimed that "state institutions are rife with extremism" and urged the president, who often stresses the need for equality among Egypt's citizens, to personally intervene in resolving this problem.

He wrote: "Even though a year has passed since the approval of the law on the construction and renovation of churches, the situation remains as it was: there is no change and no development in the existing situation, where attempts to build new churches and to renovate [old ones] are halted and thwarted… We [see] dozens of instances today in which Copts want to build small churches in which to pray and practice their religion, in villages and even in cities… but the dereliction of the authorities [in fulfilling their duty] prevents this, especially against the backdrop of incitement by elements from Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi stream in those localities. [These forces] encourage ordinary citizens to demonstrate against the building of churches, which sometimes leads them to halt the construction by means of violence and force. The state seems to be helpless to control the situation, and under the banner of restoring calm and coexistence, the construction of the church is halted and the door is opened for traditional arbitration committees to decide the fate of the church…

"The situation in Al-Minya is tragic, for we know the extent to which radical ideology has spread in this governorate… transforming it into a bastion of extremism where inhumane crimes have taken place… Today the suffering is [even] greater, especially in light of the plots hatched by some police officers who have, for example, closed down the church in Kidwan village on the pretext that a few families [in the village] oppose its existence. Bishop Macarius of Minya has said in this context: 'Over 15 of our places [of worship] have been shut down on orders of the security [forces], even though every step taken was according to the law.' He added that 'there are 70 villages, both large and small, that have no house of prayer,' so residents have no choice but to walk kilometers to the nearest church in order to pray.

"This is happening in Egypt in the 21st century, after two revolutions in which Copts took part alongside the other sectors of Egyptian society; following calls by the Egyptian public for life, liberty, social justice, and a modern civil state; and after President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi spoke of citizenship and equality among all Egyptians and said that he prefers that an Egyptian not be defined by his religion or sect, but as an Egyptian and nothing more. Accordingly, we say to the president loud and clear that extremism is rampant in state institutions and is entrenched in government authorities and administrations, and also among the police. As a result they themselves support extremist ideology and implement the fatwas of the Muslim Brotherhood mufti with respect to the construction and renovation of churches. They bypass enforcing the law by appointing arbitration committees that belong to the period before the establishment of the state, [committees] that represent Bedouin desert customs – when Egypt is a country that has had a unified central government for the past 7,000 years.

"Mr. President, we know that you are an enlightened thinker and believe in the principle of citizenship, but many circles in the country, specifically in the executive branch, do not believe in it, and [in fact] go out of their way to deliver a death blow to [the principle of] citizenship by adopting a policy of discriminating against Egyptians based on their faith. What is occurring with respect to the construction and renovation of churches, specifically in the Al-Minya governorate, seems to prove this. We request your intervention, so that the law will be enforced and the violations of the principle of citizenship and coexistence in Al-Minya will end."[16]

Statements similar to Gad's were made by Sahar Al-Ga'ara, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al Yawm. She warned that Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood have penetrated deep into state institutions, imposing their radical ideology, and urged the president to intervene so as to rescue the Copts. Like Gad, she mentioned the Copts' support of the Egyptian revolutions and their status as an integral part of Egyptian society that deserves equality.

She wrote: "This is a farce according to any criteria, and reveals that the Salafi stream and Muslim Brotherhood cells have penetrated deep into [our] state institutions... What is astonishing and saddening is that this country defends a Jewish synagogue in Cairo, but is unable to secure churches, which explode in our faces in rage and blood. [The state] propagates the fatwa booths in the metro stations,[17] and then prevents the Copts from praying…

"At this time, we must recognize that the state has failed in defending Egypt's Copts and that they have suffered more than anyone can bear: the stripping of their women, the theft of their money and their dignity, acts of expulsion, bombings and attempts on their lives.[18]

"Residents of the small village of Al-Faran cried out for the help of President Al-Sisi, and it is a strange situation when [people must] seek the help of the political leadership in gaining the right to appeal to Allah, or [have to] ask [the leadership] for the right to pray, in a country where Copts are accused of heresy day and night on all the media and religious platforms, while the National Council for Combating Terror and Extremism[19] fails to deter [those who make the accusations].

"Mr. President, the blood of your Coptic people is forfeit, some of their rights have been usurped, they awake in a panic and their sleep is haunted by nightmares that their identity will be assassinated. They are supporters of the June 30 regime [i.e., Al-Sisi's regime], and it is the cost of our revolution that they are paying with their lives…"[20]


Copts praying in the street in Al-Faran (image: masrawy.com, August 22, 2017)

Egyptian Columnist To Al-Sisi: You Must Intervene Immediately, Before Discrimination Against Copts In Al-Minya Erupts Like Volcano

Al-Masri Al-Yawm columnist Hamdi Rizq also appealed to Al-Sisi, noting that the crisis of the Copts in Al-Minya is not a security matter but a political one, and therefore requires the intervention of the Office of the President: "Mr. President, what is happening in Al-Minya has gone too far. The problem is not a church that has been closed down, an apartment in which [Copts] have been forbidden to pray, or the stripping of an elderly woman by the side of the road... Oh [Mr.] President, sectarian hostility the likes of which this country has never known is being fanned into flame. The sectarian situation in Al-Minya is like a volcano... that is likely to suddenly erupt in our faces...

"The crisis in Al-Minya is undoubtedly too great to be resolved through security intervention. The security [forces] follow guidelines... but do not provide solutions. The solutions, from start to finish, [are decided on] at the highest levels, by the Presidency. The issue is political and depends on political will... Why do we insist that the president intervene, with the full weight of his office as representative of the Egyptian state? Because what is happening in Al-Minya transcends the borders of [any particular] village or town in this governorate in Upper Egypt, and concerns all Christians, in Egypt and beyond. Imagine the huge headline that will reach the world from Al-Minya: 'Egyptian Security [Forces] Forbid Muslims Christians to Pray.'

"Every crisis in Al-Minya ends with headlines that trouble Christians, such as: 'The State Favors Salafis at Expense Of Christians,' or 'The State Fails to Provide Sufficient Protection to Christians, Bans Them from Holding  Prayers, Prevents Them from Building Churches'... What is happening in Al-Minya is very dangerous and necessitates urgent presidential intervention, [such as] dispatching a committee that will collect facts from the citizens... [and then] provide answers and submit firm proposals [on how to] cut off the head of the sectarian serpent... which lies in wait for the President."[21]

Egyptian Columnist: Al-Minya Has Become An ISIS Governorate Under Security Forces' Patronage

Al-Masri Al-Yawm columnist Karima Kamal also referred to the extremist character of the security forces: "The Copts in Al-Faran [village] prayed in the street on the night of the Feast of Mary's Assumption[22]... Is this the first time security [forces] have driven away Copts at prayer or the first time the police has arrested them, when their [only] crime was praying? This is not the first time and it won't be the last... The security [forces] prevented the Copts from praying [in church], forcing them to pray in the street, and even prevented the priest from reaching them.

"Has Al-Minya become a sovereign ISIS governorate? The photograph posted on the Internet... showing security [personnel] standing in rows, blocking the path of the priest so that he couldn't arrive for prayers, is enough [to suggest this].

"I ask the Honorable President of the country: What does the Egyptian Coptic citizen need above all else? [Does he need] the biggest church [in Egypt, planned to be built] in the [new] administrative capital [near Cairo]? [23] Or does he perhaps need a stone building in every Egyptian village where he can pray?  Does the Copt need a [church] building to boast about, or rather houses of prayer in which justice resides?"[24]


Copts praying in the street in Al-Faran village (image: masrawy.com, August 31, 2017)

Egyptian Academic: The Government And Parliament Take No Action To Address Discrimination Against Copts

In an article published in Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Dr. Mona Makram-'Ebeid, a lecturer in Political Science at the American University in Cairo and a former MP, wrote that the Church Law is incomplete since it deals only with new churches and doesn't address the issue of the churches that have been closed down. She warned that, given the laxness of the government and Parliament, Egypt will continue to witness bloodshed and more hatred and violence against Copts.

She wrote: "It seems that we are destined to hear the names of many villages in Egyptian governorates in the context of sectarian incidents and not in the context of development... I can't fathom how it can be that, in the year 2017, there are restrictions on the right to pray, despite the fact that the [Egyptian] constitution, specifically Article 64, determines that: 'Absolute religious freedom, and absolute freedom to hold religious ceremonies and rituals and to establish houses of prayer for members of the monotheistic religions, are rights anchored in law.' Although [Egypt] has a law for the construction of churches for the first time in [its] modern history, it seems that [this law] does not address the issue of [existing] churches that were closed down, and deals only with requests to build new [churches].

"There were no statements from the President [about this issue]... and MPs spend all their time in holiday resorts, as if they are waiting for the president to intervene before taking action – what a tragedy! I have traveled to many countries around the world, and nowhere have I seen such rough treatment as the treatment that [Egypt's] Copts have been suffering for dozens of years, just for trying to pray in a church...

"The government suffers from bureaucracy and laxness and doesn’t deal with the dangers in the requisite manner... It seems that our beloved Egypt is doomed to continue witnessing bloodshed, disregard of the attempts to disseminate hatred and violence, a lack of respect for the provisions of the constitution and law, and a lack of response to the serious warnings from Egypt's best minds and patriots. The homeland will [be the one to] pay the price..."[25]

 

* C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] On the passing of the new law, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1273, Egyptian Regime Approves Church Construction Law, Satisfying Coptic Church; Interfaith Conflict Continues, October 6, 2017.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), August 14, 2017.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 22, 2017.

[4] Copts-united.com, August 13, 2017.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 21, 2017.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 22, 2017.

[7] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 30, 2016.

[8] The reference is to committees comprising representatives of the Muslim and Coptic communities that meet to resolve conflicts between these communities in Egyptian villages, as an alternative to resolving them in court. This practice has come under fire from Egyptian Copts and others, who stated that these meetings are aimed at dropping the charges against Muslim aggressors while persuading the Coptic victims to give up their rights and even to leave their villages. For a 2015 incident in Beni Suef in which Coptic families were evicted from their village, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No.6097, Expulsion Of Coptic Families From Their Homes Sparks Uproar In Egypt, July 8, 2015. 

[9] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 9, 2017.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 6, 2017.

[11] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), September 6, 2017.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 10, 2017.

[13] Albawabhnews.com, September 15, 2017.

[14] Wataninet.com, October 29, 2017.

[15] Wataninet.com, October 29, 2017.

[16] Al-Watan (Egypt), August 15, 2017.

[17] The reference is to a service provided by Al-Azhar: special booths in metro stations manned by Al-Azhar sheikhs who answer citizens' questions on religion. See Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), July 20, 2017.

[18] On the May 2016 incident in which an elderly Coptic woman was attacked and stripped naked in the street, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1265, Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad, August 16, 2016; on the Islamic State (ISIS) threats against Copts that led to their fleeing their homes in Sinai, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1301,Copts Flee Sinai Amid ISIS Campaign Of Murder, Threats, February 27, 2017; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1302, On The Backdrop Of Copts Fleeing Sinai, Egyptian Establishment, Al-Azhar Criticized For Helplessness In Dealing With ISIS, Discrimination Of Copts, March 13, 2017; for more information on expulsion of Copts from their homes, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No.6097, Expulsion Of Coptic Families From Their Homes Sparks Uproar In Egypt, July 8, 2015.

[19] A council established this year, headed by President Al-Sisi, whose members include the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the head of the Coptic Church, ministers and public figures. See Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 27, 2017.

[20] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 25, 2017.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 23, 2017.

[22] A feast day observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and parts of the Anglican church.

[23] On January 6, 2017, while attending the Christmas celebrations of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Al-Sisi said that the new administrative capital will have Egypt's largest church and largest mosque. Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 7, 2017.

[24] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 24, 2017.

[25] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 28, 2017.