It has been said that Egypt is the land of eternal changelessness, often in connection with the ever reliable and cyclical flooding of the Nile, which made human life possible in the desert.
Yet Egypt’s changelessness has taken on other, less mundane, forms—particularly with the advent of Islam. Consider Islamic hostility for Coptic Christian churches, which were indigenous to Egypt centuries before the Islamic takeover.
Most recently, “on April 30, 2019, a reconciliation meeting was held in the Upper Egypt village of Nagib after threats of a potential [Muslim] mob attack led security officials to close the village’s church.” The report continues:
This situation escalated after it became known that the church did not have the necessary permits to practice religious rites. Egypt’s 2016 Church Construction Law contains language which allows church legalization permits to be indefinitely delayed due to the threat of sectarian violence. Reconciliation sessions are often used to further restrict the rights of Christians to practice their faith. Church leaders were not permitted to attend the reconciliation session in Nagib. Despite promises given before the session that the church would be reopened and permits issued, it was instead agreed that the church building would remain closed until the permits are issued at an unknown date.
“Many years ago we were praying in our houses with the priest because there was not an [existing] church,” a local Christian explained the situation. “Now there are more than 400 Coptic persons in our village and the number of us increases day by day… During the last feast days (Orthodox Easter) many Copts prayed and the police had secured the building, but then the police asked Bishop Georgius to close the church because some Muslims in the village disagreed.”
“This is a very hard situation,” said another. “You can see kids praying in tears because of their feelings of fear … that is very painful for us as Christians personally. I don’t trust in the government promises, but we have to continue praying for [a] reopening [of] the church.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this incident is that it has played out, often in parallel ways, countless times in the modern era: Coptic Christians encounter numerous legal obstacles in order to open a church—none of which apply to the building of mosques; desperate to worship freely, particularly on holy days such as Easter, they meet in private homes or unofficial churches; this enrages local Muslims, who protest and often riot.
Based on private conversations with those involved, formal complaints from the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, and objective media reporting, here’s what happens practically every single time:
When the police finally arrive, instead of looking for and arresting the Muslim culprits or mob ringleaders—or, as often is the case, the local imam who incites the Muslim mob against the “uppity infidels” who dare worship in an “illegal” church—authorities gather the leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities together in so-called “reconciliation meetings.” During these closed-doors encounters, Christians are asked to make further concessions to outraged Muslims.
Next, Copts are treated to the “good cop/bad cop” routine. Authorities (the “good cops”) tell Christian leaders things like, “Yes, we understand the situation and your innocence, but the only way to appease the rioters (the Muslim mob, the “bad cops”) is by closing down the church—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.”
Needless to say, things never “die down” or “return to normal.” Churches rarely resume being legitimized, as the mob will rise up again.
If Copts rebuff the authorities’ offer to have a reconciliation session and instead demand their rights as citizens, 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 who tried to defend the unofficial church or private residence used as a church. Then the authorities 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 rioting. 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, according to precedent, go to prison and be tortured. For example, in one 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.
This issue of reconciliation meetings is so prevalent and prevents Copts from receiving any justice that a 2009 book is entirely devoted to it. According to a review of the Arabic language book, titled (in translation), Traditional Reconciliation Sessions and Copts: Where the Culprit Emerges Triumphant and the Victim is Crushed:
In some 100 pages the book reviews how the security apparatus in Egypt chooses to ‘reconcile’ the culprits and the victims in crimes where churches are burned; Coptic property and homes plundered, and Copts themselves assaulted, beaten and sometimes murdered; and when even monks are not spared. Even though it stands to reason that such cases should be seen in courts of law where the culprits would be handed fair sentences, this is almost never allowed to take place. And even in the few cases which managed to find their way into the courts, the culprits were never handed fair sentences since the police invariably fell short of providing any incriminating evidence against them.
The farcical scenario of reconciliation sessions has thus without fail dominated the scene where attacks against Copts are concerned, even though these sessions proved to be nothing but a severe retreat of civil rights.
Politically speaking, the authorities aim—through the reconciliation sessions—to secure a rosy façade of the ‘time-honoured[’] amicable relationships between Muslims and Copts’, implying that they live happily ever after. The heartbreaking outcome, however, is that the only winners in these sessions are the trouble mongers and fanatics who induce the attacks in the first place and who more often than not escape punishment and emerge victorious. The Coptic victims are left to lick their wounds.
Worse, not only are the victims denied any justice, but the aggressors are further emboldened to attack again. As Coptic Bishop Makarious of Minya once put it in the context of discussing how Coptic Christians are now being attacked at the rate of every two or three days: “As long as the attackers are never punished, and the armed forces are portrayed as doing their duty, this will just encourage others to continue the attacks, since, even if they are arrested, they will be quickly released.”