14 April 2000 (Newsroom) — Some 400 Coptic Orthodox Christians ended a two-day standoff with police Friday near Cairo after agreeing to abandon their occupation of a church building that had been closed down by authorities, according to an expatriate Coptic group.
The parishioners, led by at least three priests, left the building when an emissary from Coptic Pope Shenouda III arrived with a promise from the government to allow the congregation to build a new church if it gave up its vigil. "This is a unique incident, that people are willing to break the chains around a church to show their defiance to the Egyptian government," Michael Meunier of the Washington, D.C.-based United States Copts Association told Newsroom.
Three years ago police locked the doors of the St. Mary and the Martyr Abanoub church in the village of Ezbet El Akbat because the congregation renovated it without government permission. Coptic Christians in Egypt complain that they are subject to a 19th-century Ottoman law that severely limits their ability to build or renovate church buildings. The law requires the church to obtain permission from the president after having completed numerous requirements that the Copts say usually are impossible to fulfill.
Since the church building was closed, the local clerical leader, Bishop Samuel of El-Kaloybeyah, and the priests have "gone through all the channels up to the president himself" to try to resolve the situation but have been unsuccessful, Meunier said. In the meantime, priests have conducted regular services and other church activities out on the street, including weddings.
According to Meunier, Samuel said that some 100 police surrounded the church last Thursday after the priests and members of the congregation broke into the building and refused to leave. Members of the congregation inside the church included children and the elderly. The parishioners agreed to leave when Bishop Youanes, Pope Shenouda's secretary, conveyed the chief Coptic leader's wishes and his agreement with the government. "What pressured them (to leave) is that they are trying not to break church law by disobeying the pope," Meunier explained. "We respect our church hierarchy."
Meunier said, however, that last year the government also promised church members they would be allowed to build but did not follow through. Shenouda often has downplayed the problems of Copts in Egypt to international audiences, insisting that they are internal matters for Egyptians to solve. Meunier, who is part of a more strident community of expatriate Copts in Western countries, says nevertheless that he understands Shenouda's position with the government. "Our thinking of him is the same as the Orthodox patriarch was in Russia — he is under siege," Meunier said. "He is pressured to do as he does; that's why we don't believe that everything he does is according to his will. He is our special leader. If he did not send his secretary (to the Ezbet El Akbat church) the government would have been forced to either leave them there or break in and have another massacre."
Meunier alluded to the country's worst sectarian violence in two decades, which took the lives of 19 Christians and two Muslims over the New Year weekend in Al Kosheh, a village 250 miles south of Cairo. Copts have complained that the incident was fueled by tensions that remained because of the government's unwillingness to hold police accountable for allegedly torturing hundreds of Christians during a murder investigation in 1998.
Human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch Middle East, have charged that official discrimination against Copts "fuels intolerance and — intentionally or not — sets the stage for anti-Christian violence by Islamic militants."
In March, Rabbi David Saperstein, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, claimed in a letter to President Bill Clinton on the eve of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington that "Egypt remains a home in which 6 million members of the Coptic Orthodox Church experience serious and pervasive religious discrimination." Saperstein, referring to a recent U.S. human rights report, noted that while permits to build churches can by issued only by President Mubarak, "mosques and the salaries of their imams are paid for out of public funds." The February report also stated that in Egypt "Christians who proselytize are subject to arrest."
In his February visit to Egypt, Pope John Paul II raised the issue of discrimination against Christians as he called for dialogue among different religious faiths. "Christians and Muslims, while respecting each others' views, should place their skills at the service of the nation at every level of society," John Paul said.
Some Copts, noting estimates that Christians comprise 15 percent of Egypt's population, recently have called for the state to allocate Christians a percentage of seats in the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, where they have no representation. Church members also have demanded that Coptic history in Egypt, which goes back to the 7th century, be given appropriate representation in school curricula; that qualified Christian professionals be given the opportunity for administrative promotion in government institutions; and that Christian events be broadcast on national television.
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