Trigger for Copts' anger: El-Marinab Church as a model

Sherry El-Gergawi, Tuesday 11 Oct 2011

Before the church in El-Marinab was burned, triggering the massive Coptic march in Cairo, concessions were made so it could be renovated - but that wasn't enough

Mar Girgis Church in Edfu, Aswan - before 30 September attack (Photo: Internet files)

The Coptic march in Cairo for civil rights that was repeatedly attacked by security forces and vigilantes, leaving 25 dead, has a history.

Flagrant attacks against Coptic churches across Egypt have become everyday occurances in the past several years, with an increased frequency since the revolution.

A few months ago, in May, Saint Mar Mina Church in the village of El-Maqadeer, in the southern governorate of Minya was attacked.

Last March another Coptic house of worship was attacked when a Muslim extremist mob torched the Church of the Martyrs of Mar Girgis and Mar Mina in the village of Sol, Atfeeh in Helwan on the southern outskirts of Cairo.

Christians attempted to hold a peaceful protest outside of state TV's Maspero building to denounce the attack on Sol, but they were attacked by a vigilante mob wielding guns, knives and clubs.

When all was done, 13 were dead, most of whom Copts, and 140 injured.

In May another church was torched in the working-class district of Imbaba in Cairo with subsequent clashes leaving 12 Christians dead.

All these attacks on Coptic Christians since Mubarak fell added to the bitter memories among Egypt's Christians of the devastating bombing on 2011 New Year's Eve of the Church of the Martyrs -- Al-Qaddisin -- in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, which left more than 20 dead.

All these incidents preceded the destruction and burning of Mar Girgis Church in the village of El-Marinab, Edfu in Aswan on 30 September, and help explain Coptic reaction this time around.

The assault on and burning of the church in Marinab triggered Coptic protests and reactionary mob attacks against them similar to the  protests and clashes that took place after the March attacks  in the village of Sol, Atfeeh.

Immediately after the attacks on the church in Edfu, Aswan Governor Major General Mustafa El-Sayed, who was kept on by the ruling military council as governor after the January 25 revolution, made statements that further ignited Coptic anger in Edfu and around the country.

El-Sayed not only failed to dennounce the attack, instead, he aggressively worked state media outlets and claimed that the building that Muslim extremists in the village tore down "was not a church", a "guesthouse" that Christians illegally transformed into a church.

He also stated, pitifully, that Copts further violated building codes because they raise the "guesthouse" four metres higher than extended four metres higher than the nine metres maximum that building code permits allowed.

In the months preceding the 30 September attack on the church, Marinab priests had admitted that they erred in going over the permit code by four metres, and promised the Aswan authorities that they would  take down the extension.

But the authorities failed to give Copts ample time to be in compliance with its codes and rushed to go for the kill.

El-Sayed admitted that the governorate had given the Copts only 15 days to remove all building code violations.

As expected, Copts failed to meet the unrealistic deadline, a Muslim cleric incited some Muslim village youth to tear down the church with "their own hands".

As the church stood in rubble and Copts were still feeling the pain and humiliation of watching their house of worship desecrated and demolished, the governor told Modern TV in a vindictive tone that "Copts made a mistake and, therefore, they should be punished."

As if to rub it in, the governor added that the Copts' mistake was promptly corrected at the hands of Muslims. and that should be end of story.

However, facts are stubborn things.

The truth in this story is very different to all rumours, half truths by in the media and extremists have circulated in the lead up to, and after the burning of the Aswan church.

Mar Girgis Church in El-Marinab village, Edfu, has always been a church and not a guesthouse. Copts have worshipped on the premise in this house of God since as far back as 1949.

In September 2010, El-Marinab Copts submitted a request to renovate the aging church building to the government's civil engineering department because they feared that its walls could collapse over their heads as they worshipped.

The Copts request was reviewed by the authorities, and an engineering committee from the governorate of Aswan inspected the site and decided that it was not even fit for restoration. Instead, inspectors recommended that the building be demolished and rebuilt anew.

The governor of Aswan forwarded the engineering committee's report to the central authorities in Cairo for a second opinion on whether to issue a permit for a new building for the church. Cairo responded that it had no objection to taking down the old building and constructing a new one.

At this point, church architects drew up plans for the job and submitted them to the governorate’s engineering department, which approved them, issuing License 42 in May, 2011, for the reconstruction of Mar Girgis Church – not the Mar Girgis “guesthouse” as the governor called it later.

After obtaining the license, Copts began to rebuild the church with concrete foundations, which would sustain a second floor, as well as a dome, in accordance to building permits obtained.

However, towards the end of the summer Copts were stunned when a large Muslim protest showed up at the church site and demanded that all construction work be demolished.

Copts called in the Aswan police department and military officers for the rescue.

Instead of confronting the angry mob, police and army officers ordered a freeze on the construction of all remaining walls and suspended worship in the church in order to negotiate a resolution to the matter with objecting Muslim villagers.

Indeed, a meeting was held between the Copts, some Muslim leaders and senior police and military officials.

Individuals claiming to represent the Muslims of El-Marinab said they objected to building a church in the village because they claimed that the numbers of Copts in the village of 18,000 Muslims was only 75, and asserted that such a small presence did not warrant the construction of any churches.

Copts countered that the church has been in the village for decades, and showed documents and licenses proving that it has been recognized as a Christian house of worship by the government, and all villagers, since it was built in 1949.

Furthermore, Copts asserted that 250 of them lived in the village, and not 75 as the extremists claimed.

Copts were successful in satisfying those who attended the meeting with the authenticity of the documents they presented, nonetheless, hardliners continued to oppose construction work on the site.

After painful negotiations, the so-called Muslim leaders finally said that they were willing to permit resumal of construction work, but only if Christians meet four conditions.

First, the hardliners insisted that the churchwould not use bells; second, no loudspeakers would be mounted on the front of the edifice; third, no crucifixes would hang on the outside of the church; fourth, the dome must be torn down and removed entirely.

The besieged Copts, under pressure to salvage their hopes of rebuilding their church, compromised. They agreed not to hang any bells, figuring that most of the Christian congregation live around the church anyways. They also accepted the condition not to use outdoor loudspeakers, reminding their audience that Christians do not broadcast their masses through speakers as Muslims in Egypt do.

However, Copts objected to the condition of not hanging crosses outside the church since, they argued, the crucifix is a symbol of their faith and at the heart of Christianity.

Still, after a lot of pressure from the officials and the Muslim hardliners, and in order for construction of the church not to stop under the pretext of security conditions, Christians compromised yet again, and agreed to place the crosses inside the church.

The final condition of not building a dome was rejected by the Copts, who argued that without a dome their church would lack any semblance of its identity as a house of God.

Muslim hardliners resentfully agreed to this one Coptic demand, and the meeting ended on this arrangement.

A few days after the meeting, the engineering department visited the church and took measurements to make sure it complies with licensed plans.

Department inspectors issued one height violation in the name of Monk Makarius Bolos, the Church's priest, and the officials formally warned the priest to rectify the violation – lowering the walls by four metres – within 15 days.

Though Edfu, like the rest of the countryside, is plagued by building code violations that police routinely ignore, in this case Edfu cops made sure to file Police report No.1 for 2011 to document the inspectors' findings in this particular case.

Suddenly, after noon Friday prayers on 30 September, nearly 3,000 Muslims left surrounding mosques and headed towards the church to tear it down.

A group of them scaled the church to take down the dome and smash the sign with the church’s name on it. Others burnt the church's library and the flames also burnt down the homes of three Coptic families living close by.

In the days following the attacks on the church and leading up to the deaths of protesters on 9 October, Christian residents of Edfu had stayed in doors for the most part in fear for their safety.

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights and Egyptians Against Discrimination issued condemnations, as did all Coptic groups and the Maspero Youth Union (MYU).

These groups, along with Coptic youth, sponsored several protests in Cairo, Assiut, Minya and Alexandria, as well as an open sit-in in front of the headquarters of Aswan Governorate.

Outraged Copts threatened to start an open strike in front of the Maspero state TV anmd radio building in Cairo if their demands remain unmet.

These demands included: the resignation of the Governor of Aswan; the immediate arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators and instigators of events at El-Marinab; rebuilding Mar Girgis Church at El-Marinab; prompt passage of a unified law for building houses of worship and another one criminalising religious discrimination.

Unfortunately, as the days went by, the government in Cairo failed to take the Copts' demands or pleas for protection seriously.

In this context, thousands of Copts and Muslims who support equal rights felt that they had to take to the streets in greater numbers to get a simple demand of equal rights across.

Meanwhile, as Copts bury their martyrs in Cairo, Dr Anton Adel, a member of the Cabinet’s National Justice Committee, and also a member of the fact-finding committee that went to review the authenticity of the documents pertaining to the church, confirmed that the committee found that the ceiling of the church had collapsed, six pillars were destroyed and several neighbouring homes were burnt down in the village of El-Marinab.

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