EGYPT: “Unjust” sentence given to Coptic priest

A Coptic priest has been sentenced to six months in jail for a minor construction violation during renovation work at his church building, but no one in a mob that burned down the building last September has been arrested.

Rev Makarious Bolous of Mar Gerges Church in Aswan was sentenced on 4 March 2012, and fined 300 Egyptian pounds (€38). He remained free, awaiting appeal. The imams who called for the attack and the villagers who destroyed the building have not been charged with any crime. The priest said the ruling and the absence of prosecution of the attackers are clear evidence of persecution and a legal double standard between Christians and Muslims. “I feel it is unjust,” he said. “It’s not fair.”

Local government officials said the building was 2.5 metres taller than the height they had approved on architectural drawings. The priest said many construction projects in Egypt are done without permits, and even when permits are issued adherence to their stipulations is casual and enforcement is lax. He said that the village where the church building once stood is surrounded by some homes that have two or three extra floors built outside of permitted specifications and by other homes that were built with no permit at all. “The whole village is full of people who are building against their licenses,” he said. “Why did they only cite the church and pick on the extra bit of building?”

The Attack

The attack on Mar Gerges Church building occurred on 30 September 2011, shortly after afternoon prayers, when approximately 3,000 villagers set fire to and then demolished the building. They also razed four homes and two businesses nearby (all owned by Christians) and widespread looting was reported. “Imams in more than 20 mosques called for crowds to gather and destroy the church and demolish the houses of the Copts and loot their properties,” said local villager Michael Ramzy.

Tension had arisen in the late August, when Muslim extremists voiced anger over renovations taking place at Mar Gerges. They claimed that church officials were turning a guesthouse on church property into a church (in fact the original structure on the site had been used as a church building for about 100 years) and they were upset that crosses could be seen from outside the building. Muslim villagers began blockading the entrance to the building and threatening Copts on the street.

On 2 September a meeting was held with military leaders and village elders, at which local Coptic leaders agreed to remove all crosses and bells outside the building. Peace returned briefly, but by the next week Muslim villagers abandoned the agreement and started harassing local Christians again. They demanded the removal of new domes, and extremists called for the building to be burned, claiming that the renovations were illegal.

The governor of Aswan, Mostafa al-Sayyed, sided with the rioters and blamed the Copts for the attacks, claiming that he had never given permission to turn a guesthouse into a church. However, documents show that Mostafa Al-Sayyed did sign off on construction permits authorising the renovation of an existing altar area in the building.

Protests

Copts across Egypt were incensed at being blamed for the destruction of the Mar Gerges Church building – they accused the government of colluding in the violence by not enforcing the law, which requires imprisonment for acts of sectarian strife, “thuggery” and vandalism of private property.

On 9 October, thousands of people marched through the streets of Cairo to protest at the governor’s statements and the government’s refusal to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Christians. Counter-protestors opened fire on some demonstrators, and soldiers ran over others with riot-control vehicles. Of the 27 people killed, at least 23 were Christians.

The army denied any responsibility for the killings, but eventually charged three soldiers with what amounts to accidental vehicular manslaughter. No one has been charged in connection with the shootings. However, the government charged two priests with inciting sectarian strife, illegal possession of firearms, illegal possession of a bladed weapon and destroying public property.

Empty Promises

Tensions remain in the village, and in March 2012 Rev Makarious Bolous said that government guarantees to fund and construct a new church building have been empty promises. “It’s been six months now, and even after Field Marshall Tantawi gave the permission to rebuild the church, I cannot go back to the church or hold any prayers there or even go to the village at all,” he said, adding that the governor is blocking all attempts to rebuild. Because he cannot go back to the village, approximately 40 Coptic families have no priest as well as having no church building. (Compass Direct News)