Nineteen people were released from police custody on Wednesday, following a series of arrests in the wake of sectarian violence in Kom al-Raheb, a village in the Samalut municipality of Minya. The violence occurred on Sunday, following the preliminary opening of a new church building owned by the Archdiocese of Samalut.
The events unfolded when a group of Coptic Christians conducted prayers at a new four-story church building on Sunday. The building, which was built by the Archdiocese of Samalut last year and has yet to be licensed as an official church in accordance with Law 80/2016, has one floor allocated for prayer. Church officials held an unofficial opening for this floor on Sunday, when they conducted the first mass to be held in a church building in Kom al-Raheb, as the village lacks a proper church.
What happened in Kom al-Raheb, however, is a microcosm of the wider history of conflicts over land access, building rights and representation, which are filtered through religious sectarian tensions in Egypt. At the local level, these conflicts at the local level are exacerbated by ineffective legislation, bureaucratic intransigence and a politics bent on pacification, rather than substantial change. The Archdiocese of Samalut has applied for a license to build a church for 17 years. The 2,500 Christians in Kom al-Raheb must travel 40 minutes to the nearest church, which services five other neighboring communities. For those caught up in the violence of the past week, as well as for Christians across Egypt, the question of how long is too long must seem always pressing.
Following the Sunday prayers, Muslims in the village attacked fellow Coptic residents for two days, until security forces intervened on Tuesday. Nineteen people were arrested and the church building was sealed off by security personnel, as per an agreement reached during a customary reconciliation session, which took place on Tuesday evening and entailed the participation of leading security personnel, as well as key community figures.
One eyewitness who lives in a nearby village but was in Kom al-Raheb visiting his family when the violence occurred, spoke with Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. On Sunday, he went to attend the first mass to be held in the building designated for prayer in Kom al-Raheb. “I was excited that I had somewhere nearby to pray,” he says. “It is not a church, just a 200 square meter house with four floors, one of which is for prayer. About 400 of us went to pray at dawn, like thieves, because we were scared of any reaction from the village.”
The eyewitness tells Mada Masr that the police likely received notification of the prayers from a local informant. In turn, security forces arrived at around 4 am on Sunday and formed a perimeter around the building. After the mass, everyone returned to their homes. Shortly thereafter, minor clashes took place, as some Muslim residents of the village attacked houses known to be owned by Copts on the outskirts of the village, which is far from the location of the new church building.
By Monday, rumors had spread among the local community that security forces were planning to demolish the building, the witness adds. Dozens of Copts from the village went to the building, and, upon discovering that it had been sealed off by security forces, began to pray in the street. After negotiations between the police and mediators from among the village’s priests, the crowd dispersed. However, a rumor then began to spread that Copts were attacking Muslims in the village, leading to a string of violent attacks on Coptic homes and cars, until police intervened on Monday evening, enforcing a curfew and arresting a number of residents.
Dawoud Nashed, a leading figure in the Archdiocese of Samalut, tells Mada Masr that the archdiocese constructed the building last year and that Sunday was its unofficial opening. “There are some 2,500 Copts in Kom al-Raheb,” he explains. “They, as well as people from five surrounding villages, all have to pray at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Abu Sidhum. It is only 150 square meters, so we are forced to work by a schedule so that everyone has the chance to pray.”
The archdiocese has been submitting requests to build a new church in Kom al-Raheb since 2001, Nashed adds, with the most recent application submitted this year. However, they never received an official response. “This is why, when we held this preliminary opening of the building, people did not believe they could actually pray inside of it,” he states.
Nashed feels that security forces made a “strong effort” to contain the situation, despite calls to incite violence against Christians on Monday. He expresses astonishment at the recent events, because “Islam does not forbid the building of churches.”
Prior to the opening of this new church building, “our women were unable to go and pray,” says the eyewitness who spoke to Mada Masr. “The church [in Abu Sidhum] is nearly 40 minutes away from us. I must take transport and I am not able to go with the family or the kids. We cannot go there and pray until the New Year. We are not asking for anything major, we just want a place to pray,” he asserts. “Christians and Muslims are brothers and friends, we visit each other during Ramadan and other occasions, but as soon as a church is built, there are problems.”
According to Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher who heads the religious freedoms unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the violence came to an end on Monday night. This was followed by a customary reconciliation session on Tuesday, which brought together leading figures from the village, as well as key security personnel.
Ragui Fouad, a high-ranking figure in the Minya chapter of the pro-government Nation’s Future Party, participated in the reconciliation process, which he refuses to describe as “customary.” In the past, government officials have avoided using this term when referring to sectarian issues, preferring instead to highlight the role of state authorities, not local community leaders, in the resolution of these conflicts. Nevertheless, customary reconciliation processes involving both state and community leaders typically lie at the heart of sectarian reconciliation efforts, especially in rural communities in Upper Egypt.
The meeting was also attended by security leaders from the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and the National Security Agency (NSA), detectives from the local security directorate, the village chief, representatives from the archdiocese and the villages elders. The session was held in the neighboring village of Abu Sidhum, where the attendees agreed to apply Law 80/2016 — which stipulates that a license to operate a church building must be obtained before prayers can be held — by keeping the building closed. A fine of LE1 million would also be levied against anyone who participates in future attacks against the church building, and all those arrested would be released, according to Fouad.
Nashed explained that the archdiocese was promised by government officials in attendance that its licensing request for the church building would be processed and approved within three months. Until then, however, worshippers must return to praying in the church in Abu Sidhum, despite its distance.
Ibrahim believes that sectarian attacks of this nature will continue to occur, due to the issues that stem from the Church Building Law (80/2016). He says that 3,730 preexisting churches submitted requests to legalize their status before the application window closed in September 2017. New churches need to submit a request to their respective governor, who may be approve, reject, or suspend their request without providing an official response.
“It’s worse now. Before the law passed, there were opportunities to get around the legal vacuum by having people pray inside homes,” according to Ibrahim. “Now, we face a criminal charge known as ‘praying without a permit,'” he adds.
Article 8 of the Law 80/2016, which was issued in August 2016, stipulates that a committee would be formed to hear requests to legalize the status of preexisting churches. In January 2017, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a decree to form the ten-member committee, which includes the ministers of defense, housing, local development, legal affairs and parliament, justice and antiquities; representatives from the GIS, the Administrative Control Authority, the NSA; as well as representatives from various churches. The committee continued to receive requests until September 28, 2017, and has since been issuing its recommendations to the Prime Minister for his approval.
In November 2018, EIPR issued a report on the issue of church legalization procedures, examining the period spanning the end of the application window on September 28, 2017 until October 2018. According to this report, during these 13 months, the Cabinet issued three separate decrees, which legalized the status of 214 preexisting churches and 126 service buildings in total, based on the committee’s recommendations. However, licensing decisions were issued to only six new churches and church buildings during this period.
Another report published by the privately owned newspaper Youm7 last month claims that the committee has approved a total of 508 requests to legalize the status of churches and church buildings.
According to EIPR’s report, between September 2017 and October 2018, the organization observed 15 incidents of sectarian tension, catalyzed by Copts performing religious rites in a number of church buildings with contested legal statuses. These tensions led to the indefinite closure of nine churches nationwide. An additional two churches were closed for a set period of time, before worshippers were allowed to return to pray. Residents of the Zawya Sultan village in Minya were notified that a new church building had been closed and that they needed to return to their old, decrepit building. Only two churches that experienced sectarian incidents have remained operational in the wake of the tensions.
All 15 churches that experienced incidents of sectarian tension during this 13 month period have submitted requests to legalize their status, although it is unclear whether these requests were submitted before or after tensions erupted. The incidents occurred at churches across eight different governorates: six in Minya, three in Luxor, and one in each of the governorates of Beheira, Giza, Qalyubiya, Beni Suef, Sohag and Qena.