The Minya Governorate and Minya Diocese are at odds after several unlicensed churches were shuttered in the governorate in October, following a series of protests and attacks.
The Minya Bishop Anba Makarios claimed that three houses being used as churches were closed by security forces in October, with a police unit stationed outside a fourth after residents attacked the buildings and churchgoers. He criticized the authorities’ “disappointing reaction” to the incidents in a Saturday statement.
The Minya Government issued a response to Makarios’ claims on Monday, contending that only two churches were closed, and asserting that making places of worship available to the Coptic community is among its top priorities.
Using houses as places of worship has become a customary practice among Egypt’s Coptic community in past decades, especially in rural areas, due to the difficulty of acquiring a church building license.
The bishop’s statement slammed the authorities reaction to the attacks, saying “In the past two weeks we have seen events that have not taken place in years. Churches have been closed, citizens assaulted and their properties destroyed. There are no deterrents. Compromises are being made in the name of peaceful coexistence, for which Copts, not the assailants, most often pay pay the price.”
Makarios further censured officials for resorting to closures and pressuring the Coptic community in the wake of such incidents.
The governorate refuted the bishop’s claims, asserting that the perpetrators of the attacks had been arrested, and urged the bishop to “verify the information he receives regarding unlicensed places of worship before issuing statements that may be used by media outlets that harbor animosity toward the state to imply that the state and the church work against each other, which is not true.”
According to Makarios’ statement, security forces closed the first church, which had been established in a house, on October 15, in Sheikh Alaa village after residents protested against the prayers being held there. The second closure came on October 22, in Kosheiry village after similar protests saw residents assault and throw rocks at churchgoers.
Ishaq Ibrahim, a religious freedoms officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Mada Masr that following the protests and closure, an informal reconciliation session was held in Kosheiry with local leaders agreeing to keep the church closed until it acquires a license. The agreement also required Copts to withdraw the police reports they filed against assailants.
Hours after this closure, authorities preemptively shuttered a third church in Karm village to avoid an escalation of violence, Bishop Makarios asserted. Karm was the scene of sectarian clashes in May 2016 after a rumor circulated of a romantic relationship between a Muslim woman and a Coptic man. Muslim residents burned the houses of the villages’ Copts and dragged the man’s mother naked through the streets.
Another attack took place in Zakariya village on October 27, when residents assaulted churchgoers, injuring one, and attacked several Coptic houses in the village, according to the bishop’s statement. A police unit is now stationed outside the church building.
Ibrahim told Mada Masr that licence requests for all four churches are pending review by the government committee tasked with legalizing the status of churches, formed in accordance with the August 2016 church building law. The EIPR officer added that once the bishop has submitted a request for a church’s licence, according to the law, the churches may not be closed until the committee has reached a decision.
The committee was formed in January of last year and includes the defense minister, the housing minister, a representative from the General Intelligence Services and a representative from the National Security Agency, among other officials.
Ibrahim posed that authorities may be closing these churches ahead of the committee’s deliberation in order to allow the committee to determine that they are not active houses of worship and close them.
According to the governorate’s statement, there are 21 unlicensed places of worship operatinng in Minya, pending decisions from the Church Legalization Committee.
Minya is the governorate with the highest Christian population, and has seen a spate of attacks on Copts and church closures in recent years, many of which have been fueled by feuds related to church building. It was also the site of a militant attack in May of this year, when armed militants attacked a caravan of Coptic Christians en route to the St. Samuel Monastery, killing at least 28.