EIPR decries state’s closure of churches that filed for legal status and demands the release of all arrested persons. Fourteen functioning churches shut down since the church construction law was issued

Press Release

30 April 2018

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights condemned today the closure of several churches by state agencies. The churches had filed applications with the church regularization committee seeking the necessary permits under Law 80/2016 on the construction of churches. EIPR also decried the security establishment’s treatment of protests mounted against these churches, particularly since in several cases the protests escalated to sectarian attacks. In these cases, security agencies arrested several parties from both sides, seeking to pressure Copts to accept customary reconciliation in order to secure the release of arrested persons while ensuring the continued closure of the churches.

Villages in various governorates saw tensions and attacks on Copts after local committees came to survey churches that applied for legal status with the regularization committee. The most recent sites of attacks include Beni Manin in the Fashn district, Komir and al-Halila in the Esna district, and al-Toud in the Abu Tisht district, all discussed in detail below.

The EIPR found that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to April 2018, state institutions have shuttered 14 existing churches that were hosting religious services prior to the closure orders. Four of these churches were closed this year, with Copts denied access to them and prayer services in them prohibited. These practices are in violation of the church construction law, which allows services to continue in churches extant prior to the law’s issuance, even if they do not meet the conditions for legal status specified in the law and the prime ministerial decree forming the regularization committee.

“The legal difficulties of building churches, as well as objections to churches from some Muslim citizens and state agencies’ capitulation to such local objections, have given rise to churches that look like an ordinary residence,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an officer on freedom of religion and belief at EIPR. “Need has created ways of circumventing construction difficulties. Often Coptic citizens purchase a house and then remove the interior walls to make it suitable for religious ritual practice. They begin holding regular services in the house and a cleric is appointed to oversee ritual practice. Then the conversion of the site into a church comes to the attention of the security services, and they learn from other officials and neighbors that the building is a church.”

Ibrahim added,

“A substantial proportion of churches founded in recent decades came into being in this way. These churches have no official license, but are de facto churches, and they have submitted applications to the legal regularization committee under the law.”

The EIPR cautioned that such incidents are likely to recur with increasing frequency as long as state institutions yield to those who reject the presence of churches and security bodies and local authorities retain the power to shut down churches in violation of the constitution and law. The EIPR reiterated the gravity of allowing a subset of citizens to effectively control and govern the right of worship of another group of citizens.

The EIPR earlier criticized the sluggish pace of the church regularization committee in considering the applications submitted to it, as well as the secrecy of its proceedings, which violates citizens’ right to know the foundations governing the granting or denial of licenses to churches and service buildings. The EIPR was also critical of the lack of a deadline for the committee to complete its considerations and respond to applications. This permits stalling and delays and allows communal tensions to fester, especially in villages that are home to small numbers of Christians.

The EIPR demands that the closed churches be reopened and citizens be enabled to worship in them. Copts arbitrarily arrested in the villages of Beni Manin in the Fashn district and Komir in the Esna district must be released, and the parties that engaged in incitement and attacks on Copts’ homes held accountable. The EIPR also renews its call for a blanket approval of all applications filed with the regularization committee by churches and service buildings, without dispatching local on-site survey committees.

For more details on sectarians tensions and attacks related to church construction, see:

Details of church closures in 2018

1. Attacks on Copts in the village of Beni Manin and the closure of the church

On April 14, 2018, a group of residents of Beni Manin, located in the Fashn district of in the southern Beni Soueif governorate, attacked village Copts and a building used for religious services, known as the Church of the Virgin and Pope Kirollos, with bricks, stones, and sticks, against the backdrop of village Muslims’ objections to the presence of a church in the town. In the days leading up to the attack, the village was already tense, the security services having summoned several Copts and questioned them about the existence of the church, which does not have the requisite permits from the security bodies.

The crisis of the Church of the Virgin began on Wednesday, April 11, when officials with the Fashn police station contacted several Copts and summoned Mansour Shehata, a local lawyer and Copt, for questioning. He was asked about the existence of a church in the village despite the lack of official permits.

In a statement to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Mansour Shehata said:

I received a phone call from a policeman named Mohammed Rabie, who heads the police outpost in the village, inquiring about the church. The policeman said, “You guys formed an association and are praying there.” I told him, “The church has been there a long time and it’s well known we pray in it.” Then I received a call from the outpost informing me that the police chief wanted to see me. I went to the Fashn police station and after a few hours there, I met with officer Ahmed Hassan in criminal investigations. He told me, “What have you been saying, Uncle Mansour? You went and told the head of the outpost that you’d get a big bell and loudspeakers and would blare out your prayer service? I told him that of course that hadn’t happened. We’ve prayed at that site for a long time. It’s a one-story building and there’s no dome on it. That we were going to install a cross or bell there was not true. The police chief said that what I was saying could create strife and light up the town.

The chief asked Mansour to use the meeting hall only for funerals and not to hold prayer services there, lest it spark “an outcry.”

The next day, April 12, officials with the Fashn police station summoned Bebawi Hakim Ghali, the former owner of part of the building. He sold his share of the building to Rushdi Labib, a local Christian, who in turn sold it to Father Estafanus, the bishop of Biba and al-Fashn, about ten years ago. The Fashn Prosecution questioned Bebawi Ghali pursuant to a police report filed by the municipal unit of the district and city of Fashn (no. 6969/Fashn district misdemeanors) against Bebawi Ghali and Bebawi Mounir Suleiman, both of whom are residents of Manin. The report alleged that they had introduced interior changes to a house they owned, converting it to a church. The construction works were suspended with Decree 16/2018 and the Fashn Prosecution released them from the police station.

At the Fashn police station on April 12, the chief of investigations asked Bebawi Ghali to sign a demolition report for the building because it was in violation of building codes, but he refused. He was then asked to sign a report to cease the code violations. He added to the report that the building was owned by his father, he had sold it a decade ago, and it was currently functioning as a church hosting religious services.

The church building was originally composed of several neighboring houses. The homeowners all sold the properties to Rushdi Labib Mansour, who annexed them to his home and then sold the entire parcel to Father Estafanus, the bishop of al-Fashn.

The EIPR obtained a copy of the contract between Rushdi Labib Mansour and Father Estafanus, dated May 7, 2010. The contract shows that the first party sold and relinquished to the second party, in his official capacity, an area of 460 m2 in Beni Manin, consisting of a building for worship for the Orthodox Coptic rite that included a communion room, altars, a bathroom, and a services building. The contract was authenticated by a ruling of the Fashn Summary Court on March 11, 2017. The EIPR also obtained a copy of the list of churches and service buildings for which the Biba and Fashn diocese is seeking licenses; number 52 on the list is the Church of the Virgin and Pope Kirollos in Beni Manin. The file also contains a certificate from the Engineers Syndicate declaring it fit for use, and the certificate notes that the building is the Church of the Virgin and Pope Kirollos, a house of worship.

Initially, prayer services were held irregularly. The mass was held once a month in the building, typically in the early hours of the day and attended by a small number of Copts, in order to avoid drawing undue attention. With time, the mass began to be held weekly, usually every Saturday morning, open to anyone who wished to attend.

A priest with the Biba and Fashn diocese told EIPR:

We’ve been holding prayer service in the church since 2010, when Rushdi Labib sold the building to the bishopric. At first, prayers were held at long intervals, one a month, then every 15 days. We held the mass early, before people went to work. With time, we started holding the mass every Saturday. The priest would come and oversee the mass and then leave. On other days, we’d hold meetings. It was known that we held prayer services in the building. The church is made of stone blocks. It’s one story, with a wooden roof, and is located in the middle of Christians’ homes. There’s an events hall attached for funerals. Inside, there’s a prayer room, two altars, and wooden pews. That’s where the prayer service is. When local residents learned of the building, they didn’t object. They said to go ahead and pray in it, there was no problem, and none of them filed an official complaint.

On Friday, April 13, several officials from the Beni Soueif governorate and Fashn district were scheduled to inaugurate the Yatim Mosque in the village. At 6 am, the governorate security director and several executive and local officials visited the church and toured it. The events hall was used as a resting room for the security forces that had come to the village for the occasion. According to local Christians, the security director told them, “Congratulations on the church.” Several local Christians also congratulated worshippers on the new mosque after the Friday prayer, offering soft drinks, and the Muslim worshippers congratulated them in turn for the church.

Mansour Shehata received a phone call from a security person, named Atef, asking about the date of the next prayer service in the church, in order to coordinate a guard on the church. Atef asked whether mass was held on Sunday. In his statement, Mansour said, “I asked the priests and we decided to hold the mass on Saturday evening, from 6 to 8 pm. At the appointed time, three policemen who had guarded the church the previous day left (Shaaban Mohammed, Gomaa Abd al-Hamid, and Mohammed Gaballah). When a local Copt contacted them, they said they were no longer on duty and it wasn’t their business, adding that Copts should just go ahead and finish the mass.”

Some sources said that tensions had surfaced in town after a local Copt named Gamal published a call to hold a religious celebration at the church on April 13 on his Facebook page. Some local Muslims took this as a provocation, seeing the building as an association and not an official church. In the wake of this, threats were received indicating an intention to attack the building. Church leaders contacted Homeland Security officials, who asked them to cancel the celebration, calm things down, and not publicize the incident. The village Copts ended the meeting just a half hour after it began based on a communication from religious leaders.

At around 7 pm, dozens of local Muslims organized a march in the streets, particularly in Christian areas, repeating hostile slogans. They pelted Christians’ homes with bricks and stones, and violently rattled doors and windows then they headed for the area of the church. There, too, they threw stones and bricks, after which security forces arrived. Security stood next to the church and formed a cordon, taking control of the situation in the village. The police station filed incident report no. 2003/2018/Fashn administrative.

Speaking to EIPR, Ashraf Samir said:

Our homes are around the church. When we learned of the attack, everyone went home and locked their doors and went up to the roofs. There were many young men from the village who had stones and sticks, and they were throwing bricks at the houses. They banged on the doors and cursed us. The electricity was cut right at the beginning of the attack. Some people threw bricks from the houses’ roofs to get them to leave, and then some Muslims intervened and made the young people leave, like Sheikh Gomaa Abbas. He defended the home of Mr. Sabri and his wife and chased the youths away. On the other side of the church, there were some Christian youths and when they saw the attack near the church, they threw bricks at the demonstrators to keep them away. The events lasted about three hours then security arrived.

Some doors and windows on several homes sustained damage in the attack, as did the windshield of a small pickup truck, the display window of Dr. Makram’s pharmacy, and the contents of a bakery.

Attacks were renewed at 8 pm on Monday, April 16. Dozens of young people organized a march chanting anti-Copt slogans then set fire to two livestock pens owned by Samir Aziz and Ezzat Aziz. A livestock pen owned by a local Muslim, Shehata Kamal, was also torched; he had purchased it from a Christian. Two irrigation machines were damaged. Incident report no. 2033/2018/Fashn administrative was filed.

Ali Riyad, the parliamentary representative for the Fashn district said:

The situation is secure and stable. This was done by kids, not even youths. The local authority said that if they’ve got a permit [the Coptic community], it’s fine. In the conditions for churches and mosques, if they have a building permit, they can build a church, no one’s above the law. There was a building there they would meet in to pray. Security is fine, there’s nothing wrong. It was an incident of the kind that happens anywhere and then is over. Security is in control of the situation now.

At dawn on Sunday, April 15, security forces arrested 22 people, 11 from each side. Eleven Muslims and nine Christians were referred to the Public Prosecution, which questioned the defendants on charges of assembly, thuggery, the use of bladed weapons (stones), and inciting rioting. All defendants denied the charges, and the prosecution ordered them detained for four days, later renewed for 15 days, pending investigation. They remain in custody.

Two Christians, Milad Mahrous Adli and Nageh Hakim Ghali, were detained at the Fashn police station lockup and were not referred to the Public Prosecution. After renewed attacks, security forces arrested another five Copts—Milad Rushdi Labib, Awad Ayyad Sadeq, Hani Raouf Adli, Faragallah Shehata Faragallah, and Emad Bebawi—bringing the total number of Christians held in the police station to seven.

2. Closure of the Mar Girgis Church in Komir

On March 31, 2018, several hundred Muslims in Komir, located in the Esna district of the Luxor governorate, organized a march through the town’s streets protesting measures to legalize the Mar Girgis Church and demanding its closure. The marchers cut off the railroad tracks for the sugar cane train and threw stones and bricks at Copts’ home, chanting religious slogans like “There is no god but God” and anti-Copt slogans such as “The church fell and the priest is dead, we don’t want a church.” Village Copts, who number about 1,000, stayed inside their homes according to local religious officials. A large security contingent was dispatched and broke up the assembly.

According to statements given to EIPR, the protests occurred five days after the committee working with the church regularization committee, which was made up of members of the local council, came to Komir, accompanied by employees with the Esna district housing committee, in order to survey the church. The Esna bishopric had submitted documentation on the church seeking legal status for it.

The church dates back to 1985, when local Copts began holding irregular prayer services in the one-story house, made of mud brick with a wooden roof. Local Copts all live in a single area of the town. With time and after the site was outfitted, religious services began to be held there regularly. In 2006, the Esna bishopric purchased the 221-m2 house, which became the Mar Girgis church. It then bought an adjacent three-story building of 139 m2, which is currently used as a kindergarten, guesthouse, and rectory for the priest who oversees services.

One local Copt said:

The church has been there since the 1980s and everyone knows about it. There’s a priest there who conducts the mass and religious services like Sunday school. Local Muslims come to the adjacent events hall for social occasions. But when the church regularization committee, which included employees with the local and village councils, came to survey the church, people incited against us. We held the service on the eve of Palm Sunday and went home. Hundreds of people, young and old, were throwing bricks at us and cursing Copts and then they went and cut off the railroad track for the sugar cane truck.

The next day, Sunday, security forces arrested several people at home, in total 15 Muslims and 7 Copts. On March 31, 2018, the chief of the Esna police station filed incident report no. 2041/2018/Esna administrative, stating that rumors had spread in Komir that Copts were turning a guesthouse into a church. The Coptic defendants said in their statements that the building was a church that had hosted religious services since 1985, not a guesthouse, and that the site was owned by the Esna bishopric.

The incident report stated that local residents assembled at the village entrance and organized a demonstration. They chanted slogans such as “God is great, no to the church.” Security forces were deployed and broke up the assembly.

According to Ashraf Shakir, the attorney for the Esna bishopric, the investigation report on the incident stated that the demonstration was organized to protest the conversion of a guesthouse into a church and anti-Christian slogans were chanted. The Public Prosecution charged both the Muslim and Christian defendants with cutting a public road (the railroad tracks), delaying the sugar cane train, disturbing internal security and peace, and fomenting fear and panic among both Muslim and Christian residents.

The Public Prosecution ordered the defendants detained for 15 days pending investigation; their detention was renewed for 15 days on April 28.

A customary reconciliation session was convened on April 26, attended by prominent families in the town and neighboring villages and the district reconciliation committee. A reconciliation statement was signed and submitted to the Public Prosecution stating that the incident involved a dispute between village Christians and Muslims and that they had agreed to resolve it and all parties had relinquished any legal claims. The agreement did not address the status of the church. The church was shut down by the security services, which posted a guard on the site and denied access to it. Local Copts are now forced to attend prayer services at the Martyrs’ Monastery Church in Esna, located 13 km from the village.

According to several statements from local residents, during the reconciliation session, the Christian side attempted repeatedly to include a term in the agreement that would recognize the right of village Copts to worship in accordance with the law. The Muslim parties rejected this and a term that would recognize the right of Copts to freely worship pursuant to the constitution and Law 80/2016. According to church sources, the town’s Muslims strenuously object to the presence of a church in the village, even if it were issued an official permit from the security bodies.

3. Closure of the Father Karras Church in al-Halila

On April 16, 2018, security forces shut down the Father Karras Church in al-Halila, located in the Esna district of the Luxor governorate, after dozens of local youths gathered in front of the church chanting slogans against it and the local Christian cleric. Security forces arrived swiftly and immediately terminated the assembly. The security establishment then told the town’s Christians to close the church and not to use it for any ritual practice, after which security deployed a guard on the church.

Church officials told the EIPR that the church was established in the 1990s. It was a very primitive structure and prayer services were held there irregularly. It was later expanded and prayers began being held regularly, and officially, in 2015; local Muslims and the security establishment were well aware of it. The church filed an application backed with documentation to the church regularization committee, and a few days prior to the incident, a local committee with the church regularization committee visited the church for a survey. The church is built on an area of 200 m2 and serves about 120 families: 86 from al-Halila and 34 from the surrounding hamlets. Local officials cut electricity to the church on April 28.

4. Closure of the Church of the Virgin in al-Toud

On March 21, 2018, hundreds of Muslims in al-Toud, located in the Abu Tisht district in the northern Qena governorate, assembled to protest the legalization of the town’s Church of the Virgin and demand its closure. A committee composed of local officials and housing department employees was on its way to survey the church, which had filed an application for status with the church regularization committee, but the committee proved unable to conduct the survey.

Several eyewitnesses said that news of the committee’s visit had leaked the day before the incident. People began inciting against the church in the streets and from several mosques. The demonstrators attacked the exterior of the church, breaking some windows and the electric meter, but cooler heads persuaded them to leave and not storm the church. The crowd then threw stones at the nearby homes of Copts and proceeded to build a brick wall roughly 1.5 meters high at the entrance of the street leading to the church. While doing so, they chanted slogans such as “Top to bottom and all around, we’ll bring the church tumbling down.” When the housing committee arrived at 3 pm and found the village in a state of unrest, it left without conducting the survey. As soon as the committee left, the demonstrators dispersed, which coincided with the arrival of security forces. Security arrested no local residents.

Social media sites were used to incite to the closure of the church. The offending accounts were linked to people from the village, and included postings (copies of which are held by the EIPR) such as:

Praise God who makes all good works possible. Good news for the honorable residents of al-Toud following the survey of the committee from the Abu Tisht council regarding the renovation and construction of a church in town and the testimony of witnesses. One of them was brother Gadallah Shaker Masoud, who was asked if there was previously a church on this site. He answered that the site was a home and remains a home and there is no church.

Another person wrote:

Al-Toud is sick, but it will not die. Salutes and esteem to all the youth of al-Toud. Al-Toud is above all. Apologies to the Copts, but in our lovely town there will be no house of worship but for Muslims.

On March 22, a customary reconciliation session was convened in the home of a prominent local resident. During the meeting, village Muslims criticized Christians for seeking legal status for the church with the church regularization committee, saying that this was the cause of the strife. The meeting ended with a rejection of a church in the town and the closure of the site. During the session, Copts were not permitted to speak about their right to worship, and the attacks on homes, the newly built wall, and the cutting of access to the street by the Coptic residential area were not discussed.