Egypt Closes One Church, Blocks Worship at Another

Officials use security risk as pretext to keep places of worship closed.

Open letter to president from Christians in Ezbat Al-Forn village. (Morning Star News)

Open letter to president from Christians in Ezbat Al-Forn village. (Morning Star News)

CAIRO (Morning Star News) – Authorities have closed a church that serves three villages in Upper Egypt on the pretext that area Muslims object to it – one of at least 15 Christian worship sites shuttered in the bishopric of Minya, sources said.

Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Minya Anba Makarios spent weeks appealing to security officials to re-open the Virgin Mary and St. Paula Church in Minya Governorate’s Kedwan village, which was closed in July. When those talks failed, the bishop issued a statement denying security agency assertions that area Muslims object to the 1,300-member church, saying they live peaceably with Coptic Christians and that any opposition comes from a small extremist faction.

“There is actually no disagreements or disputes between the Copts and Muslims,” he said. “He among them who opposes [opening the church], if any is found, gives the excuse of the necessity to obtain a security clearance. Regardless of whether these may be right in their opposition or not, the authorities instead of responding by pointing out that this is the prerogative of the state institutions, or by stating that allowing prayer is a legal right, affirm prevention of prayer! In doing so, they underscore at the same time that the opposing factions are right in their reasoning.”

The church served Christians from Kedwan al-Baharyia, Kedwan al-Keblyia and Masaken Kedwan in Minya, a province along the Nile south of Cairo. After meetings with local officials to get the church re-opened, Bishop Makarios made the rare decision to go public with his discontent this month and released a statement to Egyptian press.

“The security apparatus has prevented Copts from practicing their rites in Kedwan, Minya, claiming that it was because of objections of some opposing factions in the village, and that it was necessary to be considerate of their feelings,” Bishop Makarios said in the statement. “However, this means that there is no consideration for the feelings of the Copts and those who do not ask for anything but to pray, as if the decision belonged to the opposing factions and not to a great state such as Egypt, which should have authority and law.”

Church leaders believe local officials have closed the church in order to appease Islamic extremists. Hard-line Muslims damaged it after a funeral in March 2012 as police stood by, and then local officials closed it for an extended period on the pretext of security concerns rather than committing to protect it, according to church leaders.

Orthodox Copts have been trying to find places of worship while minding prohibitions against potentially dangerous, mass movements of Christians, Bishop Makarios said.

“Such places could be a hall, a house or even a simple room with poor ventilation. Even that is also prohibited,” he said. “And although the constitution guarantees the right of worship, this right is in reality denied by the personal will of local officials. Often times, the matter has become akin to pursuing the Copts to prevent them from praying. In some instances, it has gone to the extent of using force against people and religious leaders.”

Egypt’s constitution affirms freedom of worship, but that right is continually denied, he said.

“Every time we are faced with the same hateful scenarios and justifications, such as ‘The situation is tense, the security conditions do not allow,’” he said. “We have more than 15 places [of worship] closed on the order of the security apparatus, despite the existence of formal requests that are imprisoned in [desk] drawers. Also, there are 70 villages, farmsteads and hamlets without places for prayers.”

Police Prohibit Worship

On a day that saw violent clashes in other areas of the province, police on Sunday (Aug. 20) used force to keep a church from meeting in a private home in Minya Governorate’s Ezbat Al-Forn village.

An area resident told Morning Star News that police said the church lacked a permit to worship in the home, but Bishop Macarios said no permit is necessary. The bishop reportedly said area Muslims have never objected to the prayers of Coptic Christians “in any place in Ezbat al-Forn.”

The Al-Forn Minya Coptic Association later posted an open letter to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi entitled, “We were prevented from prayer like criminals.”

“We were surprised to find police forces surrounding and entering the village to prevent the Egyptian Copts from prayer and were prevented from going out of our homes,” it read. “We were attacked with inappropriate words … As if we are criminals or outlaws and wanted for justice, accused of performing religious rituals. And is performing religious rituals a crime?”

The message ends with a plea to stop actions against them.

Local authorities reportedly said they were considering a request for a permit to hold religious services at the home, a process that in Egypt is frequently delayed or left unresolved.

Coptic Woman Stabbed

In Alexandria, a Coptic 40-year-old woman was stabbed earlier this week after she left the church of the Virgin Mary and Archangel Rofael.

Amal Awad Abo Al-Khal, 40, was stabbed several times outside her home, which is near the church site, rights advocates said.

She was immediately taken to Beit Al-Nema for surgery. Police closed Al-Hadra Street, where she was stabbed, to search for the attacker.

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