By Kevin J. Jones
Months after protests of the government’s apparent refusal to approve the rebuilding of a damaged church, nine Christian protesters in Egypt remain in detention as supporters call for their release.
“Instead of arresting a number of residents of the estate, official and security authorities should have responded promptly to their demands and issued a decision to rebuild the church,” Ishak Ibrahim, a freedom of religion and belief expert at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said March 13.
He noted that the villagers had taken a legal path to seek the permit.
At the center of the matter is the Coptic Orthodox St. Joseph and Abu Sefein Church in Ezbet Farag Allah village in the Minya governorate. In 2016 the church was severely damaged by an unexplained fire that some locals fear was deliberately set. It was the only church for the 800 Christians in the area.
Though authorities granted the requested permit to demolish the building, they never responded to a request for a permit to rebuild the church. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, this is an illegal delay. Egypt’s Church Building Law No. 60, passed in 2016, requires a response to permit request within four months’ time.
Dozens of Coptic Christians demonstrated at the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Salamut on Jan. 22 to demand that the government approve construction of a new church. They organized a sit-in protest in Ezbet the next day.
On January 30, security forces arrested at least nine village residents: Abanoub Magdy Semaan, Gerges Samir Gerges, Jaid Saad Zekry, Milad Mahrous Tawfiq, Milad Reda Tawfiq Ayyad, Mina Salib Hosni, Mounir Samir Mounir, Raymond Mamdouh William, and Shenouda Salib Hosni.
They remained in pre-trial detention on charges of terrorism and participating in a gathering that endangers public peace. Mounir Samir Mounir, also known as Marco Samir, faces an additional charge of “arranging a gathering that affects public authority.”
Amnesty International has characterized the terrorism charge as “bogus.” The human rights group objected that the detainees, after their initial arrest, were interrogated and held incommunicado at a National Security Agency government facility.
“They were interrogated while blindfolded and handcuffed, with no lawyers present, while their families were denied information about their fate and whereabouts. These conditions are akin to enforced disappearances,” Amnesty International said March 30.
Interrogators asked the detainees about their involvement in the protest, the identities of demonstration organizers, and the identities of those who had filmed the protests and posted videos online.
The detained protesters were taken to the Supreme State Security Prosecution on Feb. 2 and 3. Prosecutors again questioned them and ordered them into pre-trial detention.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s Muslim-majority population.
Christian communities have long faced difficulties under Egyptian law, which for decades retained strict Ottoman-era rules on building or repairing churches. The church in Ezbet had only been granted legal status in 2011.
The older restrictions were repealed in 2016, though critics still say that most applications to build or repair churches are rejected, especially requests from poor or rural areas or areas where Christians are a small minority.
At present, the U.S. Commission on Interreligious Freedom says that religious freedom conditions in Egypt are “trending tentatively in a positive direction.” Its website cites “a decrease in radical Islamist violence and anti-Christian mob attacks, some progress in implementing the registration process for unlicensed churches and related buildings, and the launch of a government program to address religious intolerance in rural areas.”
“However, systematic and ongoing religious inequalities remain affixed in the Egyptian state and society, and various forms of religious bigotry and discrimination continue to plague the country’s Coptic Christians and other religious minorities,” adds the commission, an independent bipartisan U.S. government agency which advises the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
In a June 2021 report to the Catholic charity foundation Aid to the Church in Need United States, Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan of the Coptic Catholic Eparchy of Assiut said that the situation of Christians has improved in Egypt under its current president, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, though many continue to regard the Christian minority as second-class citizens.
“These are golden times for us Christians under Sisi,” he said, noting some improvements. “When a mosque is built in a new city, he (Sisi) always asks when a church will be built next to it. He often affirms that everyone, Jews, Christians and Muslims, must be allowed to practice their religion freely and be able to build places of worship.”
The bishop said that Christians are underrepresented in many sectors and are passed over for hiring and promotions in public administrative positions and the army. He specifically voiced concern that Christians are underrepresented among university students, faculty and administrators.
Aid to the Church in Need has said that serious allegations, even allegations of terrorism, have been made against Coptic activist and government critic Ramy Kamel, though human rights observers consider these charges absurd.