Fleeing from their homes in the Minya village of Koum al-Loufy in the face of death threats, an extended family of 24 Coptic Christians made their way to the Parliament building on Monday morning to demand justice for the June 30 sectarian violence incident that left their houses looted and destroyed.
The prosecution’s decision on Sunday to release the 22 people alleged to have been implicated in the case on a LE1000 bail pending further investigations prompted the family to initiate plans for their exit from the village in fear for their personal safety.
Three representatives from the family met with members of Parliament on Monday, as they readied demonstrations in front of the prosecutor general’s office. The demonstration may be followed by another in front of the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace, according to Amir Khalaf, a member of the family.
Khalaf spoke with Mada Masr outside the Parliament building, recounting how a rumor that his family was building a church led to the June 30 violence and subsequent threats.
Two of the brothers in the extended family – which includes four brothers, their wives, children and mother – decided to build new residential structures on the family’s small plot of land, according to Khalaf.
“On June 29, we were surprised to see the village’s local leader order us to stop the construction, because he alleged we were building a church, which we strongly denied. Each of my brothers was building on a space of 65 square meters for their families. Is that enough for a church?” assert Khalaf.
The eldest brother in the family was asked to sign an official statement at the local police station, pledging that the new buildings would not be used for religious services. However, only a few hours later, a crowd looted the family’s houses, before setting fire to them and the buildings under construction.
Highlighting the tension that pervades the village’s inter-religious relations, Khalaf stated that he believes that those responsible for the attack are “extremists who belong to the Muslim Brother and Salafis” out on the anniversary of June 30, even though there has no been no evidence substantiating the claim.
“They insulted us, and threatened to demolish the church and build a mosque instead. They tried to take our children to throw them in the fire. One of them grabbed my wife to rape her. We escaped in the middle of the night in our sleeping clothes, hiding in the surrounding plantations so no one could find us,” Khalaf stated.
The family eventually made its way to a small garage, where it has lived since the attack. “Imagine: children, women, the elderly and men all living in this small area without electricity, water, bathrooms or any form of sanitation for more than one month. The space was so small that we had to sleep in shifts,” he added.
The family is against resolving the issue through the customary reconciliation process, especially after it has received death threats, according to Khalaf. “They told us that the police wouldn’t protect us, and the police really didn’t. When they were celebrating their release yesterday, the police were guarding them, not us.”
Although the Minya governor swiftly issued compensatory payments of LE15,000 to each family, Khalfa argues the money falls far below the full extent of damages incurred. “The losses are not less than LE200,000. They stole our jewelry and money. I’m a newlywed and all of my new furniture was stolen,” he said.
In the face of increasing threats and what he perceives as authorities’ failure to address his family’s rights and security, Khalaf stated that he refuses to return to his village until justice is served. “If the law and the president will not bring justice, get us out of this country,” he stated.
The Minya governorate has recently witnessed a series of similar sectarian violence incidents. In May, an elderly Coptic woman was stripped naked in the streets of Karm village, after a rumor that her son and a divorced Muslim woman had taken up a romantic relationship circulated throughout the village. In the violence that ensued, a number of houses owned by Coptic citizens were looted and destroyed. In an incident in July that followed rumors that a resident building would be converted to a church, the 27-year-old cousin of a Minya priest was stabbed and killed, while three of the priest’s family members were injured.
With church construction increasingly becoming a dangerous act and amid mounting pressure to address the litany of incidents, the Cabinet submitted a draft of legislation that would regulate church construction to the State Council, which review the proposed law before sending it to Parliament.
Despite the Coptic Christian community’s long-standing request for legislation on church construction and Pope Tawadros II and the heads of two other major Christian churches having issued their approval for the Cabinet’s draft, experts and Coptic authorities have criticized the draft for the loopholes they say may further complicate construction.
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) researcher Ishak Ibrahim, who specializes in religious freedoms, told Mada Masr that the new law is “catastrophic,” saying it contains vaguely worded stipulations that could restrict church construction more than the current outdated laws.
The proposed draft would require Copts to present a construction request to local authorities, who would then “coordinate with relevant authorities” to determine the viability of the request before issuing a final decision within four months.
However, the law does not stipulate which authorities will be consulted, nor does it delineate the criteria for approval or rejection, according to Ibrahim. The proposed legislation also vaguely states that the size of the planned church should be proportionate to the “number and needs of the Christian population” in the area, a leeway that Ibrahim argues could lead to stringent interpretations.
As the legislation is making its way through the approval process, the EIPR has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the hardships that Coptic Christians face in accessing places of worship under the title “Closed for security reasons: For a fair church construction law.”