Last Friday (16 June), the Coptic community in Saft el-Khirsa, 180km south of Cairo, woke up to find their three-storey community centre had been broken into and sealed off by police, and their furniture, rugs and religious icons were lying on the street outside.
The building had been allocated to them after attacks on their homes in July last year.
An official explanation for the raid and closure of the building was not given, but a local source told World Watch Monitor it was caused by the visit of a local bishop.
Anba Stephanos, bishop of the city of Biba, had come the previous day (15 June) to comfort one of the families who had lost a son in the bus attack in Minya on Ascension Day and had also visited the community centre. Muslim residents apparently interpreted his visit as a sign the Copts wanted to build a church in the village, and alerted police.
The incident shows how Egypt’s Copts are not only facing the challenge of Islamic State militants, who have vowed to “wipe them out“, but also the daily challenge of living in a country where their constitutional right to freedom of belief and expression is challenged by their Muslim neighbours.
According to Coptic news site Watani, the local priest in Saft el-Khirsa, Fr Thomas Bibawy, has demanded that the Interior Minister conducts an urgent investigation into the incident, while the bishopric has frozen its membership of Beit el-Aila, an interfaith group headed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
The right to freedom of belief, as well as expression, is enshrined in Egypt’s constitution, but Copts who wish to practise their faith in a church building face an uphill battle.
It is almost impossible for Coptic Christians to obtain a license to build a church.
In Saft el-Khirsa, a town of around 12,000, including approximately 70 Christian families, there are ten mosques but no church. And Saft el-Khirsa is far from unique; similar situations can be found across the country.
The Copts here have used their building as a community centre and sometimes also as a place of worship, though whether they have permission to do so is unclear. In November last year, they applied for a license, but there has been no official response, nor any indication when they might receive one or what would help their case.
Previously, in July last year, the Copts in Saft el-Khirsa were the subject of a violent attack over rumours they were building a “house church“. Coptic homes and stores were pelted with stones by angry crowds, shouting “We don’t want a church”, and “No god but Allah, Christians are the enemies of Allah”, according to local witnesses.
In a similar case last year, Copts in Koum al-Loufi, Minya, were attacked and four of their houses set on fire by local Muslims following a rumour that one of the houses was going to be turned into a church.
According to the Washington Post, Minya Governorate has experienced the largest number of sectarian attacks, with more than 75 targeting Christian residents in the past six years.
In response, Minya’s Coptic bishop, Anba Makarios, said: “What we need is real effort exerted to ensure this is not repeated, not just solidarity and compassion.”
The Catholic website La Croix points at the the importance of education, saying “the lack of education, as well as its corollary, the teaching of conservative thought, is … blamed for being the vector of rampant extremism”. Could the same be true of sectarianism in general?
Influential clerics like Sheikh Ahmed al-Naquib teach that “it is forbidden to build churches in the lands of Islam. This holds true, even if the ruler allows otherwise”.
Meanwhile, a young student of Al-Azhar University, a global centre for Sunni thought, admits that he “was taught to believe that Muslims were superior to Christians”, adding that “certain lecturers even taught that killing a Christian was not a crime”.
But in an official statement issued on 18 April, Al-Azhar said “Sharia prohibits every kind of assault against human beings, regardless of their religion and belief”, and “Islam also binds Muslims to protect all places of worship and to treat non-Muslims with kindness”.
Copts, who make up 10% of Egypt’s population, also complain about “double standards” for Muslims and Christians.
In an interview with La Croix, Victor Salama, a professor at Cairo University, says “the Islamisation of society in Egypt has led to a turning inward by the Coptic community itself, which has also had consequences”.
“The public sphere has become Muslim and today we are witnessing double-standard justice,” Salama says.
Salama compares reactions to two recent incidents to make his point. On the one hand, a group of young Copts were last year sentenced to prison and eventually fled the country because they had made a video mocking Islam. But on the other, Salama notes, “After the [bus] attack in Minya, some internet users posted hate messages, rejoicing at the violence against Christians. But these were not prosecuted even though the law punishes such behaviour. Such impunity weakens the Copts”.