Comment on latest Sectarian Attacks in Minya EIPR Condemns Security Approach to Sectarian Attacks and Urges Facilitation of the Construction and Renovation of Churches

Press Release

7 April 2015

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights monitored with growing concern the sectarian attacks and security abuses seen in the Minya governorate over the past few days, which came against the backdrop of worship services held at a licensed church and the reconstruction and expansion of another church. The EIPR warns that such tensions are likely to recur as long as the same security approach persists. This approach offers only ad-hoc, customary solutions and allows the stronger party to impose unconstitutional, illegal conditions on the weaker party, thus permitting offenders to elude punishment with impunity.

On Friday evening, security forces led by the police chief of the northern zone of the Minya governorate stormed the House of St. Youssef al-Bar; the property, where worship services are held, is owned by the archbishopric of Maghagha and al-Adwa and located in the village of Miyana. The forces vandalized the contents of the building and seized vessels used for religious rites, claiming that the site had no building permit. This was denied by the Maghagha archbishopric in an official statement, which detailed communications between the church and official bodies regarding the receipt of the necessary permits.

In a related incident, the village of al-Galaa, located in the Samalout district in northern Minya, has been the site of persistent sectarian tensions and attacks since February. Several local Muslims have rejected the implementation of a decree from the Minya governor ordering the demolition and reconstruction of the Church of the Virgin, where religious services have been held since 1977, although local Copts have accepted most of the conditions imposed by the Muslim side during several customary reconciliation sessions held under the aegis of the security apparatus. These conditions include that the church be a one-story structure without a tower or bells and that village Christians offer an official apology to village Muslims for bringing the issue to the attention of the media. Nevertheless, the execution of this agreement was delayed by attacks on village Copts, which took place despite the security presence in the village.

The EIPR criticized the role of the security apparatus in raiding the archbishopric building in the first incident and in sponsoring a customary reconciliation in the second incident and pressuring Coptic citizens to accept the terms of the agreement, which involved failing to protect them and uphold their rights and arbitrarily arresting equal numbers of persons from both sides of the dispute. This step may be used to compel the weaker party to forgo its rights and cement the status quo.

“It is astonishing that Coptic citizens’ exercise of their constitutional, legal right to worship and build, renovate, and reconstruct houses of worship is still hostage to the approval of a majority of the area’s residents,” said Ishak Ibrahim, the officer for EIPR’s Freedom of Religion and Belief Program. “From the first moment, the security apparatus should have affirmed that they represent the state and protect the rights of all its citizens, instead of balking and compelling Christians to accept humiliating conditions to allow them to worship.”

The EIPR asked the president to legalize all existing churches and religious buildings that host worship services pursuant to building codes applied on all structures. He should also assume his responsibility to approve all requests for the construction, renovation, and repair of churches pending the election of a parliament and the drafting of a fair law on the construction of houses of worship that guarantees the right of all, especially Copts, to exercise their rights of freedom of belief and worship as enshrined in the Egyptian constitution.

The EIPR also urged the competent bodies to investigate the responsibility of local security leaders in the latest development of events, which resulted in the attack on the building of the Maghagha archbishopric and continues to prevent Christians in al-Galaa from building their church following the approval of the Minya governor. Local commanders have yielded to the demands and conditions of extremists and refused to engage with the attacks at the outset to uphold the law and citizens’ rights.