Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Inflaming sectarian tensions

The Church of the Virgin Mary in the village of Ismailia, Minya Diocese, has been attacked by arsonists, reports Michael Adel

Al-Ahram Weekly

A statement released by the Archdiocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas said church officials are confident that security agencies will act quickly to apprehend the arsonists who burned a temporary church and bring them to justice.

“At 2:00am on Thursday the Church of the Holy Virgin in Ismailia’s Al-Bahriya village, six km north of the city of Minia, was attacked by extremists who set fire to it and destroyed it entirely,” the statement read.

The statement noted that the now-destroyed church had been constructed as a temporary measure. It was essentially a large tent where Copts have performed services and convened meetings for more than a year with the approval of local officials and security agencies. The guards were all Muslim.

Services were officiated by the Rev Jonathan Adel. The temporary structure and arrangements had been put in place because the congregation’s home church, constructed in 2009, has not yet received permission to open from the security authorities.

The archdiocese said it is coordinating with security agencies to remedy the situation and prevent anything worse from happening. “Copts and Muslims in the village live in a spirit of friendship and cooperation,” it said in a statement.

“We are very confident that government agencies will act quickly in response to this crisis to apprehend that criminals, as has been the case in several previous situations.”

Despite the destruction caused by extremists who set fire to the wooden poles and tent material of the temporary church, worshippers of the Church of the Virgin Mary performed Sunday services as usual, on top of the burned remains. They have refused to abandon their church and are determined to continue their rites of worship there until the structure is rebuilt. Worshippers at the Sunday service offered prayers for the peace and safety of Egypt and the Coptic Church.

Bishop Makarios of Minya told Al-Ahram Weekly that the church had not accused anyone of responsibility for the act of arson. Church officials, he said, are leaving it up to security agencies to investigate the incident.

Bishop Makaros said that from the moment he heard about the fire he cautioned Copts against demonstrations in order to safeguard peace in the village. This, he said, was the priority at present. He added that security agencies are working hard to discover what had happened.

“I have prayed in that church, which was guarded by Muslims who are our brothers and eager to maintain good relations,” said the bishop. “We have been performing our rites of worship in that tent — the alternative church — for over a year with the knowledge of official authorities.”

He noted that the inauguration of the actual church building was contingent on permission being granted by the security agencies that have been in charge of the issue since 2011.

Ezzat Ibrahim, director of the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights in Minya, urged security authorities to allow the opening of the permanent church building. This would help prevent any possible strife following the burning of the temporary structure, he said. He added that he saw no reason for further delays in granting the necessary permissions.

Disputes over the site on which the church and its adjacent temporary pavilion are constructed first erupted in February 2012 when sectarian clashes flared up between Muslims and Copts after the church was scheduled for inauguration.

Before it could be opened, hundreds of village youths gathered around the building and claimed it was being converted into a church without the proper licence. Security forces intervened to restore calm. The village’s Coptic residents have since remained silent about the unresolved issue, even though the closest church is seven kilometres away.

A month ago village leaders formed a dispute-management committee to resolve problems in the village. Much of the credit for this belongs to the village mayor, Ibrahim Ghanoum. The committee consists of nine Copts and 45 Muslims, the composition being determined by the ratio of Copts to Muslims in the village.

Ghanoum ensured that one of the first matters brought before the committee was the church, which had for some time been a focal point of tensions between Copts and extremists. The question of whether to allocate a plot of land to Copts in the village for them to use as a temporary site for worship until a church was constructed was put to a vote. Forty-six members of the committee voted in favour and four against.

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