EGYPT: Bishop refused licence for church building

Bishop Agathon Bishop Agathon (pictured) has been refused a licence to rebuild a church in Maghagha, a city of Upper Egypt located on the west bank of the Nile.

At the end of July 2010, clergy and parishioners from the Coptic Diocese of Maghagha and Edwah (which serves 250,000 Copts) staged a sit-in at the bishopric grounds. They were protesting against the refusal of the state governor to grant them a permit to rebuild their old church premises. During the sit-in, the Copts held banners asking for their rights to have a church, chanting, “With our soul and our blood, we will build our church.”

Bishop Agathon first applied for a licence to rebuild in April 2007, when the old church building had fallen into a dangerous state of repair, and had become too small for the growing congregation. After nearly three and a half years of negotiations and appeals to President Mubarak, an agreement was reached in March 2010 between the Governor and the Bishop.

The signed conditions were that the old buildings (which were built in 1934 through a royal decree) were to be pulled down and in exchange Governor Ahmad Dia-Eldin would issue a licence to rebuild on adjacent land owned by the church. He said that he did not trust the Copts to build first and then pull down the old complex, and said that he would never permit two adjacent church buildings.

The old church building was demolished in March 2010, but still the Governor refused to issue the licence, arguing that the 45 square metres of the rooms where Bishop Agathon lives, the public toilets and the perimeter wall had not been pulled down. According to the Bishop, during negotiations the Governor had agreed to keep the Bishop’s rooms until new ones were built – as the Bishop asked, “Otherwise where will I put my head to sleep and keep my papers?” However, the Governor now insists on the removal of the remaining buildings as a condition of granting the licence.

Since the church building was demolished, the Bishop has celebrated mass in a tent, where the congregation has to endure temperatures exceeding 45¬∞C. A local Copt claimed, “Stones are hurled inside the tent at us by Muslims.” Another explained, “Ever since the Islamist Governor Ahmed Dia-Eldin of Minya took office in April 2008, Copts have only seen misery and persecution. Minya has now become the centre of Islamists and terrorists. Churches are destroyed, minor girls are abducted, never to be seen again, Copts are attacked and forcibly evicted from their villages, to be replaced by Muslims.”

The Governor’s demand that the perimeter wall be pulled down was, according to him, “so that whoever is walking in the street would see that the church was removed and feel at peace.” Bishop Agathon said, “We have pulled down the whole fence, except for two gates. However this has angered the Governor as those had a cross on them.”

The licence still had not been issued 90 days after the wall was demolished, so for security reasons it had to be rebuilt. The Bishop explained that, “when the diocese was subjected to thefts and assaults, we had to rebuild it temporarily until the renewal licence is issued. It is not safe to stay without a guarding fence.”

Bishop Agathon said that Pope Shenouda III had stated that he saw this problem coming when the Governor insisted that the buildings be pulled down before a licence was granted. “His Holiness told me that he doubts whether they will allow us to build a new one,” said the Bishop.

On 27 July 2010, the Governor decided that the rebuilding work needed a new decree from President Mubarak. The Bishop insists that the old, royal decree is valid as “this is not a new church, but a renewal of a church that was falling apart.”

If the situation is not resolved soon, the congregation intends to move the sit-in to the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo, where they will present a petition signed by 165,000 people to President Mubarak.” (Assist, Watani)