Deacon Michael Habib spoke with sadness about the damage his church in al-Minya province sustained in an attack by a group of armed men in July.
“The aim of this church is, and always has been, to serve the neighbouring villages,” he said. “We had nothing to do with politics and were in fact loved and respected by everyone, so why was the church attacked and burned?”
Over the past four months, about 70 Coptic churches and church buildings have been burned and attacked, according to government statistics. A number of mosques also have been attacked, mainly following the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adawiyah and al-Nahda sit-ins in August.
This prompted Beit el-Aela el-Misriyah, a non-governmental organisation, to launch an initiative to renovate houses of worship damaged in recent acts of violence with support from the government, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Church and private individuals and businesses.
The initiative, launched October 31st, aims to promote tolerance and encourages all Egyptians to help repair damaged houses of worship, the organisation said.
The initiative seeks to raise 300 million Egyptian pounds ($43.5 million) to conduct repair work, which is set to begin in December and is expected to be completed within one year.
A special committee will select the houses of worship to undergo renovation.
‘All Egyptians are brothers’
“The initiative essentially aims to affirm that all Egyptians are brothers in every way, that protecting houses of worship is the responsibility of every Egyptian, and that when a Muslim or Christian house of worship is attacked, all members of both sects participate in renovating it,” said Mahmoud Azab, Beit el-Aela co-ordinator and adviser to Sheikh of Al-Azhar on dialogue.
Accounts have been opened at all Egyptian banks to receive donations, Azab told Al-Shorfa. A number of companies and businessmen have already announced they will make sizable donations, and renovation projects will soon kick off with help from the armed forces, he said.
Beit el-Aela el-Misriyah was co-founded by Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church in Egypt in November 2011, and aims to “preserve Egypt’s social fabric in co-ordination with all relevant government bodies and ministries”, Azab said.
Its membership comprises Muslim and Coptic scholars, representatives of various other Christian communities in Egypt and a number of academics and experts, and its mission is to promote national unity, tolerance and non-violence among all citizens, he said.
“This necessitated that the organisation launch an initiative that brings together the business community, the government and civil society to renovate houses of worship that were damaged during the violence of the past few months and affirm that they are places that teach tolerance and dialogue, and must be preserved,” Azab said.
The foundation has launched other initiatives which promote these values, including an inter-religious dialogue committee, which offers lectures to Muslim and Christian clerics on tolerance, shared Muslim and Christian values and the importance of citizenship in building civilisations.
First phase to begin in December
Bishop Makarios of the Diocese of al-Minya, which suffered the most attacks, recently announced that the first phase of repair work will begin in early December at 10 sites, seven of which are in al-Minya.
The second phase is slated to begin one month after the start of the first, he said.
“This initiative comes at a critical time of the transition phase Egypt is going through,” said initiative co-founder Moataz Abdel-Fattah, a public policy professor at the American University in Cairo.
The initiative’s importance lies in its emphasis on the principles of citizenship and preservation of the role of houses of worship, all of which are essentially public facilities that serve all Egyptians, both morally and materially, regardless of their religion, he said.
Efforts must be intensified in the days ahead to instil the concepts of tolerance and acceptance of others, Abdel Fattah said, as “these principles are the foundation for building any free, democratic society”.
*Mohamed Mahmoud is a freelance journalist based in Egypt. A pseudonym has been used for security reasons. This article was written for Al-Shorfa.com, a web site sponsored by USCENTCOM to highlight movement toward greater regional stability both through bilateral and multilateral cooperative arrangements. Al-Shorfa.com also focuses on developments that hinder both terrorist activity and support for terrorism in the region.