Members of the Holy Virgin and Mar Girgis church staged a sit-in to protest the closure of their church in October. (Photo: Watani)
Members of the Holy Virgin and Mar Girgis church staged a sit-in to protest the closure of their church in October. (Photo: Watani)

A Coptic church in Minya, Upper Egypt, was officially allowed to open last week for the first time since it was built in 2015, and three months after clashes with local Muslims had forced it to close indefinitely.

The Holy Virgin and Mar Girgis church in the village of Sheikh Alaa had only been open for a month when it was forced to close in October, after which the church community protested by staging a sit-in and conducting a daily Mass in the church, which continued until its official reopening on 6 January.

On the same day, the Ministry of Housing announced that it would “allow Christians to practise religious rites at unlicensed churches, pending their formal recognition as places of worship”, as the Egyptian news site AhramOnline reported.

But Coptic political researcher Karim Kamal told AhramOnline: “The issue of unlicensed churches is not a problem from the state, governors, the Ministry of Interior or housing. The real problem lies in the ultra-conservative Islamists in some villages in rural and Upper Egyptian governorates, who fuel tensions over small unlicensed churches to pressure security officials into closing these churches to prevent sectarian strife.”

Where there is conflict between Coptic and Muslim villagers, Copts are often forced into ‘conciliation meetings’, where they say they are put under unfair pressure to relinquish their rights as Egyptian citizens.

‘Not the end of the road’

Meanwhile the Speaker of Egypt’s House of Representatives, Ali Abdel-Aal, has assured the leader of the Coptic Church in Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, that last year’s law to help Copts build churches will not be the only aid given to Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic community, which has suffered a wave of deadly attacks in the past 12 months.

“It took 160 years for Egypt to pass a law for building and renovating churches, but this law is not the end of the road,” he said.

Copts have presented 2,650 requests from parishes waiting for a permit or license to renovate or build.

Egypt was one of the sharpest risers on 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. It is now ranked 17th after 128 Egyptian Christians were killed in religiously motivated attacks last year and many others had to flee their homes. The Islamic State group has vowed to “wipe out” Egypt’s Copts and “liberate Cairo”.