From attacks by Muslim mobs to closures by Muslim authorities, the lamentable plight of Coptic Christian churches in Egypt always follows a pattern, one that is unwaveringly only too typical.
Thus, last April 14, a Muslim mob—predictably riled by the previous day's Friday mosque sermons—attacked the church of the Holy Virgin and Pope Kyrillos in Beni Meinin, Beni Suef. According to Watani, as with 3,500 other Egyptian churches, after patently waiting for decades to receive a permit, the church "had been used for worship for some 10 years now… [T]he building authority committee had recently [earlier that day] visited the church in preparation for legalising its status, and the attack was waged in retaliation."
Local authorities' response was even more typical: Twenty people were arrested after the attack—eleven Muslims (attackers) and nine Copts (defenders). At least five of the arrested Christians, whose "crime" was to try to put out fires Muslims started, were illegally incarcerated for over a month. One lost his job due to this prolonged absence (police refused to admit holding him to his employer).
Thereafter, on May 22, followed the usual "reconciliation" meeting between local Christian and Muslim elders, whereby victims forego their legal rights in an out of court settlement. In order to release their innocents the Copts had to agree to close the church—no more mass, wedding or funeral services on grounds that it is a "security risk"—and agree that the eleven Muslims who led the violent attack also be acquitted.
Just four days after that, the whole process was repeated again: on May 26, another Muslim mob attacked a church in the village of al-Shuqaf in the province of Beheira. "The mob," notes the report, "also pelted the Coptic villagers' houses with stones, damaged the priest's car, and set on fire a motorbike that was parked in front of the church. Seven Copts suffered slight injuries. The police was called and caught 11 Muslims and nine Copts."
As with the previous church incident, according to Watani, this church had also:
been in use for worship for over three years now, and is known as the church of St Mark… a few months ago, construction work started on building a mosque close to the church. On Saturday afternoon [May 26], the Muslim worshippers began shouting slogans against the church and the Copts, and used the mosque microphones to call upon the villagers to attack the church. Many villagers gathered and waged the attack.
The Coptic villagers claim that the nine Copts who were arrested had been caught randomly in what has now become common practice by the police in order to pressure the Copts into '[re]conciliation,' so that no legal action would be taken against the Muslim culprits in exchange for setting free the Coptic detainees and ensuring a swift end to hostilities.
Such is the unvarying "boilerplate" plight of Egypt's Christians and their churches. To become acquainted with the persecution of one Coptic church is to become acquainted with all. For instance, nearly two years ago I offered the following detailed look at the "reconciliation" process—one that, as these two recent incidences show, remains perfectly applicable to and well entrenched in Egypt:
Christians trying to build a church … are typical violations that prompt large, armed Muslim mobs to attack all the Christians in that village (and their church if one exists) as a form of collective punishment, which is also Islamic….
After the uprising has fizzled out, authorities arrive. Instead of looking for and arresting the culprits or mob ringleaders—or, as often is the case, the local imam who incites the Muslim mob against the "uppity infidels" who need to be reminded of "their place"—authorities gather the leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities together in what are termed "reconciliation meetings." During these meetings, Christians are asked to make further concessions to angry Muslims.
Authorities tell Christian leaders things like, "Yes, we understand the situation and your innocence, but the only way to create calm in the village is for X [the offending Christian and extended family, all of whom may have been beat] to leave the village—just for now, until things calm down." Or, "Yes, we understand you need a church, but as you can see, the situation is volatile right now, so, for the time being, maybe you can walk to the church in the next town six miles away—you know, until things die down."…
[Should Christians] rebuff the authorities' offer and demand their rights as citizens against the culprits, the authorities smile and say "okay." Then they go through the village making arrests—except that most of those whom they arrest are Christian youths. Then they tell the Christian leaders, "Well, we've made the arrests. But, just as you say so-and-so [Muslim] was involved, there are even more witnesses [Muslims] who insist your own [Christian] youths were the ones who began the violence. So, we can either arrest and prosecute them, or you can rethink our offer about having a reconciliation meeting."
Under the circumstances, dejected Christians generally agree to the further mockery. What alternative do they have? They know if they don't their youth will certainly go to prison and be tortured. In one recent incident, wounded Christians who dared fight against Muslim attackers were arrested and, despite serious injuries, held for seven hours and prevented from receiving medical attention….
[N]ot only are the victims denied any justice, but the aggressors are further emboldened to attack again.
Indeed, as seen by recent events—including one month where four churches were attacked and then closed—this modus operandi and culture of emboldened impunity is now more entrenched in Egypt than before.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Judith Friedman-Rosen writing fellow at the Middle East Forum