Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2011
Issue No. 1067
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Church fire fires up Copts

Dozens of angry Copts protested in front of the National Radio and Television building against the torching of the Marinab Church. Reem Leila reports

Scores of Copts and Muslims in Cairo and Alexandria protested on 4 October against the partial burning down of Marinab Mary Guirgis Church and the complete torching of two of the Copts' houses. The incident took place on Friday, in the southern city of Edfu which is affiliated to the Aswan governorate. Protesters began their march from Shubra to the Supreme Court headquarters downtown. A few hours later, hundreds of Copts decided to march to the country's National Radio and Television building, known as Maspero, to begin an open-ended strike. Protesters demanded the dismissal of Aswan Governor Mustafa El-Sayed and protection against continuous attacks on Coptic churches.

However, a few hours later, military police dispersed the angry crowds. Crowd violence was reported.

Angry protesters were chanting "Muslims and Copts hand in hand are one," "Raise your head high, you are a Copt", and "No to religious discrimination". The slogans reflected Coptic rage after a group of people attacked the Marinab Church in a bid to stop its renovation. Protesters were also calling for the stepping down of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, general commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) claiming he was unable to protect Christians and their properties.

At the same time, El-Sayed announced to the press that the building was not a church, but an administrative building in which no prayers were performed. "The building was not licensed as a church. If there were any prayers taking place in it, it's against the law," El-Sayed said. In an attempt to contain the Copts' outrage, government officials promised to re-construct the building.

This is not the first attack on Christian churches; two previous attacks were recorded this year. The first attack was in Atfih district in Giza. The second was the torching of a church in Imbaba, also in Giza.

Bishop Morcos of Marinab Church rejected the governor's statement, saying the building was a church and that prayers were being openly performed in it for years. "All reports stating that the building was not a church and was an administrative building or a guesthouse are mere lies. Everyone knows that this was a church where Christians have been practising their rituals for many years," Morcos said.

Protesters who blocked the road in front of Maspero caused traffic jams in the downtown area. Lawyer Naguib Gobrail, who is also head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights (EUHR), held a press conference at the union's headquarters to express Coptic anger over the continuous attacks on their churches across the country. Gobrail told Al-Ahram Weekly, "Copts are blaming Tantawi, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and Minister of Interior Mansour Eissawi for their inability to protect Christians and laxity in presenting perpetrators to the law," Gobrail said.

Gobrail, who accused Salafis of taking part in the church's attack, agreed with Morcos that the building which was torched on Friday was a church. "I have all the documents proving that this building was licensed to be a church 80 years ago," he said. According to Gobrail, the only solution was to approve the unified law for places of worship. "Christians have to go through endless procedures to build a church, renovate it, or even fix anything broken in it, while Muslims do not have this problem at all. Everything is easy for them," claimed Gobrail.

El-Sayed, Aswan's governor, challenged Gobrail's and Morcos's claims. "I challenge anyone who claims that he owns any document proving that the building which was attacked was originally a church. All official documents in my office prove that the building was originally licensed to be an administrative office. They have violated the law and changed its activity. An investigation is currently underway to take the perpetrators to court. Nobody is allowed to attack, burn or pull down Egyptian property," El-Sayed said.

During the conference, Gobrail warned that if Christians' persecution continued and the authorities concerned did not take proper measures against the perpetrators of the attack, "I will call on all Christians not to participate in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. In addition, we will ask for the protection of foreign countries as well as to resort to international law to protect ourselves against the discrimination we are witnessing in our own country."

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