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Egyptian Governor Suspends Church Renewal until Bishop’s Home is ‘Torn Down’

‘Copts have only seen misery and persecution,‘ says a protestor

By Dan Wooding

07/30/2010 Egypt (ANS)-Middle East journalist, Mary Abdelmassih, has told the ASSIST News Service (ANS) that since Sunday, July 25, 2010, some 75 clergy and nearly 150,000 Copts from parishes all over the Diocese of Maghagha and Edwah have staged a sit-in in Maghagha, an Egyptian city located on the west bank of the Nile.

“They were protesting against the intransigence of the Governor of Minya,” Abdelmassih told ANS.

During the sit-in, she reported, the Copts held banners asking for their rights to have a church, amidst chants of “With our soul and our blood, we will build our church.”

The journalist revealed that Governor Ahmad Dia-Eldin had suspended the license obtained for the renewal of the diocese in Maghagha, including the church, after the old complex was pulled down as agreed.

“The pretext given was that the 45 square meter of the rooms where Bishop Agathon lives and the public toilets were not pulled down as well,” she said. “The Bishop said that during negotiations, the Governor agreed verbally in front of all those present to keep the Bishop’s rooms until new ones have been built.”

She quoted the Bishop as saying, “Otherwise where will I put my head to sleep and keep my papers?”

Abdelmassih went on to say, “The Governor has now changed his mind and insists on adhering to the written agreement without his ‘giveaways’ and requires as a condition their immediate removal.”

She told ANS, “After nearly three and a half years of negotiations and appeals to President Mubarak, an agreement was reached early March 2010, between the Governor and the Bishop. The signed conditions were that the old buildings of the Coptic Diocese of Maghagha including the falling-apart church, which was built in 1934 through a Royal decree, were to be pulled down and in exchange the Governor of Minya would issue a license for the renewal of the Diocese on adjacent land owned by the church.

“After the church was pulled down, the Bishop and congregation celebrate masses since March 16, 2010, in a makeshift tent in the summer heat exceeding 45 Celsius [113 degree Fahrenheit].”

Mary Abdelmassih quoted one local Copt as claiming, “Stones are hurled inside the tent at us by Muslims.”

One of the Copts, who asked not to be named and was interviewed at the rally, said, “Ever since the Islamist governor Ahmed Dia-Eldin took office in Minya in April 2008, Copts have only seen misery and persecution. Minya has now become the center of Islamists and terrorists. Churches are destroyed, minor girls are abducted, never to be seen again, Copts are attacked and forcibly evicted from their villages, to be replaced by Muslims.”

In an interview with Freecopts advocacy, the Bishop said that he believes that the Governor suspended the renewal licence because during the negotiations, he tried to seize the land of the pulled down old diocese, insisting that the land has be donated to the governorate.

“When we refused, explaining that this land is an endowment to the church and cannot be donated further, he held a grudge against us because of our refusal and he later suspended the license,” he said.

Abdelmassih stated that it was agreed that this vacant land is to be used, subject to the Church’s financial circumstances, for erecting a free health care centre “to be used by Christians and Muslims alike, as is always the case with church services.”

She added that the Governor also wanted that all of the fence surrounding the old Diocese to be pulled down immediately as well, explaining that “whoever is walking in the street would see that the church was removed and feel at peace!”

Bishop Agathon told activist Wagih Yacoub in an aired interview, “We have pulled down the whole fence, except for two gates. However this has angered the Governor as those had a cross on them.”

The Bishop added that after 90 days “when the diocese was subjected to thefts and assaults, we had to rebuild it temporarily until the renewal licence is issued.”

He added, “It is not safe for the Bishop to stay without a guarding fence.”

Bishop Agathon said that Pope Shenouda III, 117th Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and also the head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, had stated that saw this problem coming when he knew that the Governor insisted that the Diocese buildings have to be pulled down before a licence is granted for renewal.

“His Holiness told me that he doubts whether they will allow us to build a new one,” said the Bishop.

Abdelmassih then stated that the Governor of Minya, who appeared on Egyptian TV on Sunday, June 25, 2010, had claimed that “contrary to the truth,” the Bishop of Maghagha “wants two dioceses near each other, failing to mention that all buildings including the church of the old diocese was pulled down.”

The US-based Coptic human rights TV channel Hope-Sat, also interviewed the Governor, who she said, “had no answers to the questions put to him, regarding the toilets and the fence.”

Abdelmassih went on to say, “He also said that a 7-storey building has not been pulled down. The Bishop, who was also live on air, answered him that the so-called 7-storey building are [actually] 45 square metres rooms where he lives at the moment and to which the Governor has ‘kindly agreed to leave for the time being, as somewhere for me to sleep and to keep the diocese papers.’”

Abdelmassih said that when outspoken Father Morcos Aziz, who serves in one of the Coptic Church in California , joined them on air and asked the Governor what he thought of suspending the licence because of his insistence on the immediate removal of the toilets? He also asked, “What sort of impression does this give to the outside world about Egypt ?”

She said that then the “infuriated Governor” ended the conversation and put his phone down.

“I hope the outside world sees what the Christians in Egypt have to go through to build just one church,” commented Father Morcos.

On July 27, 2010, the Governor decided that the rebuilding works need a new decree from President Mubarak, while the Bishop of Maghagha insists that the Royal decree is valid as “this is not a new church, but a renewal of a church that was falling apart.”

Abdelmassih concluded by saying, “The sit-in will continue at the Maghagha tent-come-church until Saturday, July 31, 2010 and, if the problem is not solved by then, the congregation from the Diocese Maghagha and Edwah, which serves 250,000 Copts, will travel to Cairo to continue their sit-in at the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo, after presenting a petition signed by 160,000 Copts from the Diocese to President Mubarak.”