Two people were injured when mobs ransacked and looted five homes in Minya’s Dimshau Hashim village on Friday. Scores of Islamist extremists attacked the houses after rumours circulated that Christian villagers were planning to build a church.
Churches continue to be built illegally in Egypt due to complicated administrative procedures. A law passed in 2016 regulating the construction and restoration of churches failed to end the phenomenon.
Following the attacks the Reconciliation Council in Minya, in cooperation with the Rapprochement and Peace Association, affiliated to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, released a statement calling on the Coptic Church and security bodies to attend an unofficial reconciliation session which was held in Dimshau Hashim “to maintain stability and unity”.
Anba Macarius, the bishop of Minya, said “the Church firmly rejects holding informal sessions to solve the Copts’ problem in Minya.”
“We will not acknowledge the sessions’ results and we denounce pressuring simple people into attending them. They waste rights. We stand in support of the rule of law.”
Security forces intensified their presence at Ezbet Sultan and Damshau Hashim villages and at places of worship. Checkpoints were set up on roads linking villages in the area in anticipation of further attacks. Special forces and police vehicles were heavily deployed.
A Down with the Reconciliation Council campaign began on social networks to object to the unofficial sessions organised by the Reconciliation Council. Many posters condemned the statement released by the Rapprochement and Peace Association calling “for the unity and security of the nation”.
Some Copts initiated a petition to call on President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to intervene in Dimshau Hashim and allow villagers to build a church.
“Repeating the mistakes of the past by accepting informal reconciliation instead of applying the law will increase sectarian incidents,” says journalist Suleiman Shafik.
“Legal procedures have already started with the arrest of 19 suspects. The guilty should be punished and those affected should be compensated. That is the role of the state in dealing with its citizens.”
It will be “dangerous if this informal rapprochement takes place”.
“The problems cannot be solved with sugar-coated words or pressing Coptic villagers into attending the sessions in return for their safety and to avoid future attacks. Punishing the criminals, compensating those affects and setting up a church for the village’s Copts is the way to go,” says Shafik.
Fadi Youssef, founder of the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts, called for the reconciliation sessions to be cancelled.
“We support the rule of law. The victims should take back what is rightfully theirs, and then they can choose whether they want reconciliation or not.”
“The so-called Reconciliation Council, which sides with the stronger party, should not intervene in sectarian incidents except after the victims regain their rights. When they are compensated and safe the council can then proceed to hold its rapprochement sessions,” said Youssef.
“The state should end these informal sessions and uphold the rule of law and the constitution.”
A Church source said calm had been restored in Al-Zanika village in Esna where security forces dispersed crowds gathered in front of the Virgin Mary Church. An application to license the church had been submitted to the cabinet, said the source.
Raafat Samir Habib, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights in Upper Egypt, said all unlicensed churches in Luxor have applied to legalise their status. “Their files are currently in the hands of the cabinet. Law 80/2016 for legalising churches states that until licences are decided no church can be closed.”
The Committee for Listing Unlicensed Orthodox Churches was promised licensing procedures would be accelerated, says committee vice president Pastor Mikhail Antoin, “yet only 212 churches and buildings were licensed in the past year”.
There are an estimated 2,600 unlicensed churches across Egypt, he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: ‘Apply the rule of law’