Police personnel prevented a group of Coptic citizens from celebrating Sunday Mass in Marmina Church, which usually holds the daily prayers in Nazlet al-Nakhl village in the southern city of Minya, Minya Bishop Makaryous told Mada Masr.
The building where the church is located has been assigned as a prayer space for the tens of Coptic citizens living in the village for the last six months. “A low-ranking security guard escalated the issue by taking it to his bosses, and reporting that Copts were praying in unlicensed space. As a result, huge numbers of police personnel attended the scene,” Makaryous said.
On Monday the church’s priest, Botros Aziz, was banned from entering the village amid concerns of a possible escalation of tensions between security and Coptic families. This pushed Makaryous to instruct Coptic residents to hold daily prayers inside a private home to avoid any confrontations, and in order to “give security a chance to reconcile with the Coptic population, which was extremely humiliated and insulted this morning.”
“We tried to convince security not to prevent the Mass, but to no avail. It is not wise to highlight such a negative situation, giving the impression that there is a crisis. This is not the right time,” Makaryous said, referring to the tens of Christian families who were forced to flee North Sinai last week to escape targeted attacks by IS-affiliated militants. Seven Copts in were killed in North Sinai in February alone.
A security source told the privately owned Al-Bawaba newspaper that Copts in the village had bought a house with the intention of transforming it into a church, potentially provoking the anger of Muslim residents. This pushed security forces to prevent the prayers in order to avoid any possible sectarian confrontations.
Makaryous, however, denied these allegations, confirming that the building in Nazlet al-Nakhl is a church, not a house. He added that several different security bodies assured him that prayers would resume soon. “We are waiting for security to move to solve the problem and affirm the state’s sovereignty and citizenship rights,” he said.
Minya, home to the country’s largest Coptic population, has witnessed a spate of sectarian incidents in recent years mostly related to feuds around building churches. The parliament passed legislation to organize the building of churches in August 2016, following repeated demands to organize the right of worship for Egypt’s Coptic population. The legislation however, was criticized for issues related to the licensing process for churches.
Fears materialized earlier this year when a government committee was formed to legalize the status of hundreds of unlicensed churches nationwide, overwhelmingly controlled by the state’s security apparatus. Coptic communities have long complained of security intervention preventing the building of churches.
During the tenure of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, state security apparatus had complete control over licensing churches.
The committee currently includes ministers of defense, local development, legal affairs, justice and antiquities, as well as representatives from the Administrative Control Authority, general intelligence, National Security Agency and one church official.
Ishak Ibrahim, researcher in the issues of religious minorities at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Mada Masr in an earlier interview that the way the committee was formed, and the voting mechanisms within it affirms fears that many churches will not be granted licenses.
“The committee is predominantly controlled by security, which will make its decisions based on security calculations. Why the committee did not include legal experts or civil society representatives?”