On September 5, 2023, a Muslim mob rose against and attacked a Coptic Christian man’s property on the false assumption that he was building a church. The incident occurred in the village of al-Khiyari, in the Abu Qurqas center.
The Muslims apparently confused two developments. Because the village has no church, a Coptic priest had been traveling to and meeting with the Christians of al-Khiyari in a certain area near the home of Imad Wajih, the aforementioned Coptic man. In that same area, Christians had submitted a request for a permit to build a church, so they could hold proper worship services, as opposed to meeting with a traveling priest in random spots.
In the meantime, Imad began building a smaller private home on his property. Although it had nothing to do with the proposed church, local Muslims began inciting one another, including on social media, where they complained that “the Copts are building a church without a permit!”
Accordingly, they attacked Imad’s property and stole building materials, including concrete blocks and reinforced iron. A fire also broke out in the vicinity.
To be sure, this scenario has played out countless times in Egypt: whenever there is even a rumor that a Coptic church is being built or repaired—local Muslim mobs riot and attack Christians. Authorities frequently respond by appeasing the rioters and permanently sealing up the “offending” churches on the charge that they are “security risks.”
Another similar case occurred on December 24, 2022—Christmas Eve in the West. Then, Muslims savagely attacked a church and its Christians after, and because, authorities had given them permission to fix their church’s collapsed roof, which had fallen on and hurt several worshippers. On the following day, the Muslim governor responded to the violence by rescinding the church’s permit to fix its crumbling roof, telling them to “pray in the rain.”
So much hostility for churches can be traced back to Article 2 of Egypt’s Constitution: “Islam is the religion of the State … The principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.” As it happens, Islamic Sharia is decidedly hostile to non-Muslim places of worship. Strictly interpreted, Sharia forbids the building or renovating of churches in Egypt. Although that law is not strictly enforced, its “spirit”—which breeds hostility for churches amongst Egypt’s rank and file—clearly lives on.
Consider the recollection of one Moheb, a member of one of many Coptic churches shut down in 2018:
A great deal of Muslim young men, aged 16-26, from our village and nearby gathered in front of our church building, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and chanting hostile slogans against Copts and the Church, such as ‘We don’t want a church in our Islamic village…. They tried to break the front door … but we locked [it] from the inside. We immediately called the police who arrived and dispersed the demonstrators but they didn’t arrest anyone. They then closed the church building, sealed it and placed security guards with it.
Responding to those closures, Gamil Ayed, a local Coptic lawyer, voiced typical Christian sentiment:
We haven’t heard that a mosque was closed down, or that prayer was stopped in it because it was unlicensed. Is that justice? Where is the equality? Where is the religious freedom? Where is the law? Where are the state institutions?
After the closure of his church, another Christian, Rafaat Fawzy, expressed the undue hardships such unnecessary discrimination causes:
There are about 4,000 Christians in our village and we have no place to worship now. The nearest church is … 15km [nine miles] away. It is difficult to go and pray in that church, especially for the old, the sick people and kids.
He too continued by asking the same questions on the minds of millions of Christians in Egypt:
Where are our rights? There are seven mosques in our village and Muslims can pray in any place freely, but we are prevented from practicing our religious rites in a simple place that we have been dreaming of. Is that justice? We are oppressed in our country and there are no rights for us.
Incidentally, these incidents took place two years after Egypt’s much touted “church law,” which passed in 2016 and was meant to ease restrictions on churches, but which, in fact, “discriminates against the Christian minority in Egypt,” to quote Human Rights Watch.
The many difficulties Egypt’s Christians encounter in the context of church worship is just one of several violations against their human rights. Whether their daughters are targeted for abduction and forced conversion, or whether they are arrested and imprisoned on the accusation that they “blasphemed” against Islam, or whether they must be demonized and hated thanks to the teachings of often government-connected mosques and universities, Christians simply do not share in the same human rights that Muslims do in Egypt.
Just ask those of al-Khiyari village. No doubt, they are bracing for a rejection of their church permit on the claim that, since local Muslims rioted, no church can exist in the village—lest it too become a “security hazard.”