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ICC Note:

The topic of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian community has resurfaced in local media following an increase of incidents where security forces submit to Islamist pressure by closing churches. Coptic Christians are increasingly frustrated by the authorities’ failure to treat them like Egyptian citizens. Although state media claims that new churches have been constructed, the reality is that churches are increasingly being closed for reasons which cite vague security concerns. In practice, all it takes is a single complaint from a Muslim neighbor to close a church. The authorities have a responsibility to protect the rights of Christians to pray and worship in their church buildings.

 

11/01/2017 Egypt (MEMRI) – 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.

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 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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.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.

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