Both sides of the fence
A demolition order for a fence built around St Anthony's Monastery has local government and the church hurling accusations at each other. Dena Rashed reports
After monks used their bodies as human shields to block a government- ordered demolition of a fence surrounding St Anthony's Monastery on the Red Sea, an agreement was reached between the governorate and the church to divide the disputed area between the two sides.
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St Anthony Monastery; protesting monks stand in the way of bulldozers and security forces trying to demolish the controversial fence
The controversy erupted last month when Red Sea Governor Saad Abu Reida ordered that a fence surrounding the monastery, located in Al-Za'faran, near the Red Sea resort of Ras Sidr, be torn down because it was illegal. The monastery countered that the fence was legal, and claimed that they had the papers to prove it.
On 19 August, demolition and security forces were sent to St Anthony but the monks stood their ground and refused to comply with the order to have the fence taken down. The monks, led by the head of the monastery Bishop Youstus, acted as human shields.
A special committee was set up to resolve the dispute on 25 August, including Governor of Alexandria Abdel-Salam El-Mahgoub, Minister of Administrative Development Mustafa Abdel-Qader, Abu Reida and Bishop Youanis, Pope Shenouda III's secretary.
At the same time a protest campaign was launched abroad by the US Copts Association (UCA) describing the demolition order as an attack on the sanctity of the monastery. The UCA accused Abu Reida and the government of discrimination against the Christian community by trying to tear down the fence and threatening St Anthony's, one of the oldest monasteries in the world, founded in 365 AD.
Bishop Youstus was reluctant to discuss the issue with Al-Ahram Weekly, saying his opinion was clearly stated on the Internet site www.copts.com, a Web site which is run by the UCA. Nonetheless, he did say that "the fence was authorised 10 years ago by the previous governor and the Ministry of Interior. However, the present governor has issued an order for its demolition."
The bishop was surprised that it took the authorities this long to realise that the fence was being built. "We showed the authorities the permit we were granted to build the fence. We stood in front of it, and I told the monks we have to act as shields to prevent its demolition, and we did," Bishop Youstus told the Weekly. He declined to comment further on the issue until he had discussed it with Pope Shenouda, who returned from a trip to the US on Tuesday. "I will say no more because my words are misunderstood," he said.
For his part Abu Reida believes the issue was blown out of proportion. "The law grants the governorate the right to demolish any illegal construction, and in this case there exists an illegal construction," he told the Weekly.
According to a pamphlet released by St Anthony's Monastery, the actual area of the religious site is approximately 18 feddans. In the 1970s, the monastery was granted an additional 600,000 square metres, licensed to them by the Ministry of Culture. In 1992 the monastery built a fence that expanded the site by an additional 1,954,661 square metres. "The contested fence was built clandestinely at the end of 2002, illegally annexing almost 2,449,318 square metres," Abu Reida claimed.
The governor met Bishop Youstus on 2 August and asked him to remove the fence but the latter refused. "He left us no choice but to apply the law," said Abu Reida.
Responding to criticism about the size of the security forces and demolition team that was dispatched to the site, Abu Reida countered that he applied standard procedure used everywhere in Egypt. "The procedure taken was normal; we demolished two illegally-built mosques and one half of another that was encroaching on government land and property," he told the Weekly.
The governor expressed his anger at Bishop Youstus for drawing attention to the dispute abroad. "It is unacceptable how he threatened to contact the US to intervene on their behalf in the matter, and followed that by actually calling embassies, foreign associations and the foreign press to pressure us not to carry out the law," said Abu Reida, who also received a phone call from the Italian chargé d'affaires asking him not to damage the monastery. "It was never about the monastery," stressed Abu Reida. "What Bishop Youstus did was a form of [incitement of] sectarian strife."
The UCA, however, claimed that the governor was damaging the environment surrounding the monastery at the foot of Al-Qalzam Mountain. Michael Meunier, president of the UCA, stated on his group's site that "the intention of the governor is to bring development and civilisation to the monastery and compromise the serenity of this holy site."
The special committee has reached a preliminary agreement by which the government will sell half of the land which the fence demarcates to the monastery while the other half will be owned by the governorate and planted with trees. "[This agreement ensures that] we are not going to disturb the monastery since the planting of trees will be three kilometres away," explained Abu Reida. "And the trees will be of the kind which does not bear fruit, in order to avoid enticing visitors," he reassured the Weekly