EGYPT: Muslim villagers attack Coptic church building

Muslim villagers in Egypt’s Fayoum Province attacked a church building, throwing rocks, setting parts of the building on fire and tearing down a cross on top. Four Christians, including a priest, suffered minor injuries from stones the mob hurled.

The attack began on Friday 15 February at 3 pm, after a worship service in the Church of Mar Girgis (St George) in the town of Tamiyyah, 103 kilometres southwest of Cairo. The Church of Mar Girgis serves about 180 Coptic Orthodox families.

“It was an ordinary day, starting with the liturgy and Sunday school,” said a 30-year-old who attends the church. “Most people left after the service, but a few people stayed at the church. While we were sitting, we saw all these people… coming to attack the church.”

About 20 to 30 villagers, most from an extended Muslim family, gathered outside the building and began pelting it with rocks and smashing windows. They threw Molotov cocktail-type explosives, trying to set the building on fire, but only succeeded in starting small fires. They then pushed their way in through a hole they had knocked in a wall. Inside, they destroyed icons, crosses and the support structure of the church dome, causing part of it to collapse. The attack lasted for several hours, eased at night and started again at noon the next day. The assailants again tried to set fire to the church building, but a water storage unit on the roof, damaged in the attack, burst open and doused the flames.

The attackers threw stones at Father Domadios, but he was saved by a Muslim family who took him away from the village in their car. The first day’s attack happened in plain sight of the police, who did nothing to stop it, although on the second day they detained some of the villagers.

After the attack, the government set up barricades to prevent reporters from getting to the scene. A priest said that government officials have started harassing Copts in the community to get them to remain silent about the incident, and they told church officials not to do anything about the hole. Local Copts are staying indoors for fear of attack.

Tensions have risen in the area since the Egyptian Revolution two years ago, and ten Coptic youths have been taking shifts at the church building every night to protect it. The attack on Friday 15 February began before they were at their post.

Background to the attack

The trouble began when a Muslim who lives in a house that shares a wall with the church building made a hole in the wall so he could spy on the congregation – local residents say he started spying when the building was undergoing recent renovations. He moved into the adjoining house ten to fifteen years ago. Members of the congregation discovered the hole about three months ago, and by the time of the attack it had been opened up to a square metre. The Muslim, his family and some villagers began a campaign of intimidation against the church, claiming it was against Islamic law for a church building to exist next to a Muslim residence. A local priest claimed that an influential Salafi Muslim who seeks the destruction of the church building is influencing the neighbour.

“Reconciliation Meeting”

As is common in such situations, a so-called “reconciliation meeting” was held between the Copts and the Muslims. The head of the district police came to the village on the evening of Saturday 16 February and tried to reconcile them, but a local priest said that reconciliation meetings are likely to fail because the Muslims make “impossible” demands. Many found the meeting to be unfair and humiliating, and even while it was in progress the building was attacked again, with shouts of “We do not want the church.” One member of the Coptic delegation left in protest at the unfairness of the terms of “reconciliation”.

The church offered to buy the house adjoining the church building, but the Muslims demanded the relocation of the church. Among the conditions in the agreement imposed on the church, which the Coptic delegation was forced to sign, is that it is not allowed to restore the church to its original height before the attack: it must remain the new height after the attack, not exceeding 3 metres. The Copts were compelled to agree to build, at their expense, soundproofed walls around the church building, to absorb the sound of hymns, and to cover the roof with soundproof material, as well as the neighbour’s roof. No action was taken against him.

Previous attack

This was the second attack in a month on property of Fayoum Province’s Coptic Christians. On 15 January hundreds of Muslims attacked a community centre in Fanous village that was under construction, with permits, by a Coptic charity. Local Muslims accused the charity of building a church, and after local mosque leaders emitted calls through megaphones to defend Islam, a crowd gathered, surrounded the building and pulled it to the ground. No one was arrested in connection with the attack.

Rally

Hundreds of Copts rallied on the evening of Sunday 17 February against the torching of the Church of Mar Girgis, as well as the rise in the destruction of church buildings by Muslims. Several Coptic rights groups organised a march to the High Court building in Cairo, to demand justice.

Demonstrators demanded that the church building be reconstructed and the perpetrators be prosecuted, in addition to the assailants of previous attacks on the churches during the last two years. They also demanded an end to the customary “reconciliation” meetings forced on Copts by the authorities, in which Copts lose all their rights. A large number of liberal Muslims joined the demonstration.

(Assyrian International News Agency, Morning Star News)