This town ain't big enough

Violent outbreaks over the building of churches in Egypt are symptomatic of a growing sectarian divide, writes Jonathan Spollen.


As the ashes cooled where their houses and businesses once stood, Bimha's Christian community was left to wonder was it worth it. Thirty-six Christian families lost their homes in sectarian violence last month in this Southern Cairo village, seven lost their businesses, and 11 Christians were hospitalized. The riots that engulfed the town that Friday afternoon arose not out of an inter-communal squabble, nor because someone converted from one faith to the other. It was over the planned construction of a church.

For years Christians living in Bimha assembled for prayers in the houses of two congregation members. ‘House churches', as they are known, are quite common in Egypt, particularly in smaller rural areas where the religious divide is more obvious. In a village with a large Muslim majority, like Bimha, the presence of a church may be perceived as inflammatory, or as a sign of sectarian division.

This incident is but one of a growing number of attacks on Christians relating to places of worship. In 2004 and 2006, similar violence erupted in the towns of Damshwai Hashim, and Odayssat, though the Christians there who prayed in one another's homes were not attempting to build churches; their secretive practice was justification enough.

The issue is rooted in a law dating back to Ottoman times, which states that it is necessary to obtain a Presidential decree before a church can be built or even repaired. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak amended that law in 2005, making the local district governor responsible for issuing such permits. However, many obstacles still remain.

One priest based in Giza, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that in many ways it has actually made things harder. There is now more bureaucracy on the “practical level”, he complained, and things like basic repairs can take even longer than before.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic weekly newspaper ‘Watani', agrees. According to Sidhom it can take over a year to get something fixed, “a church toilet for example”. Sidhom goes on to say the situation outside of Cairo is worse. “In the city of Assiut (290 km south of Cairo),” he says, “there are churches still waiting for reparation permits after 50 years”. Even if measures are approved, Sidhom argues, “security interference” makes their implementation almost impossible.

The Head of the Religious Dialogue Committee at Al Azhar mosque, the highest Islamic authority in Egypt, Sheikh Fawzy Al-Zefzaf, dismisses Christian claims of unfair treatment. He points out that Muslims must obtain permission to build mosques too, and believes Christians in Egypt and abroad are trying “to damage the Egyptian reputation by talking about this subject”.

All the required permits had been obtained by Bimha's Christians before they set about constructing a modest church, on a plot donated by a community member. But pamphlets distributed throughout the town in the days leading up to the clash warned that “it is necessary that every Muslim protects his religion, otherwise all is lost”, and called on Muslims to, “Rise for Jihad after Friday prayers”.

Despite being forewarned of potential trouble, security forces arrived hours after the attacks had taken place, cordoning off the village to prevent journalists entering. Egypt's police are renowned for their proficiency at clearing demonstrations and dealing with civil unrest, but seem less effective when protecting the country's Christian minority. In Bimha, it was reported that a number of off-duty policemen were among the 500-strong mob burning houses and assaulting Christians.

Furthermore, as with the Damshwai Hashim and Odayssat incidents, many were arrested but no one was charged. A “reconciliation session” was held by representatives of both communities. In this meeting the Christians waived their right to compensation (over £50,000 in damage was done), and agreed not to build their church.

This should come as no surprise says George Ishaq, leader of opposition party Kefaya (“Enough”). It continues to happen, he says, because the perpetrators know they can get away with it. “These attacks are crimes,” he adds, “and you cannot solve a crime with a ‘kiss and make up'. Without the rule of law this problem will never be solved.”

Another cause for concern is the demography of the attackers – by all accounts, this was not the handiwork of fringe Islamic extremists. A report issued by the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Social Research, shortly after the Bimha attack, noted that the “vast majority” of such attacks are committed by “ordinary people from the neighbourhood, under the influence of hate propaganda, emitted through the media, the education system and mosque preaching”.

The building of churches is but one issue on which Egypt's Christians say they face discrimination. The worry is that with the growing trend toward conservative Islam, discriminatory laws like those regulating church construction will become harder to reverse.

Thousands of mosques have sprung up throughout the country in the last quarter of a century to cater to both the country's growing population and its Islamic reawakening. Christians here face many difficulties establishing their own places of worship, in peace. For the Christians living there this is a continued grievance, and reflects a deepening split in the country's social fabric.

Egypt's Christians know that freedom to practice their religion comes at a cost. And sometimes, as those in Bimha discovered, it does not come at all.