On 6 January 2019, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi opened two enormous houses of worship, a mosque and a church, in the still-under- construction New Administrative Capital (New Capital). The church is said to be the largest ever in the Middle East and can hold 8,200 worshippers.
“We are one and will remain one,” el-Sisi said during the inauguration, referring to Egypt’s religious diversity of Muslims (90%) and Christians (10%).
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Egypt a few days later, hailed the opening of the church, writing on Twitter that it showed el-Sisi’s “commitment to promoting religious freedom and interfaith tolerance.” President Trump also commented on his favourite medium, stating that “President El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future!”
But out of sight, events in Upper Egypt a week after the church opening showed a very different picture. Footage emerged of villagers in Manshiyet Zafarana, south of Minya, protesting the presence of a small church. The police responded by closing the improvised place of worship and expelling two priests from the village, an act that was met with celebrations.
“We are always striving for peace and calm but we reject humiliation, dhimmitude and the abandonment of rights,” Bishop Macarius of Minya responded after the attack. “Dhimmitude” refers to the concept applied during the early days of Islamic territorial expansion, in which Christians and Jews would be subject to Islamic rule in exchange for protection from the ruler.
Macarius also wrote a number of strongly-worded tweets criticising the absence of justice, as the perpetrators have not yet been persecuted, as well as the state’s failure to intervene in the events.
In contrast to Bishop Macarius’ words, the incident was met with silence from the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church. Pope Tawadros II usually refrains from commenting on sectarian incidents, apart from high-profile attacks by the so-called Islamic State (IS), which has targeted Christians multiple times since 2016.
As the Minya incident does not stand alone, commentators criticised the praise over the New Capital church opening, saying that Copts would only be truly served if they faced fewer restrictions opening churches elsewhere. “Christians throughout Egypt struggle to open churches where they actually live, thanks to a bigoted church building law passed under el-Sisi,” political analyst Timothy Kaldas tweeted.
In September 2016, the el-Sisi administration passed a new church-building law that would guarantee equal rights for Copts to build churches. In and around the expanding city of Cairo, one can indeed see many new churches under construction. In rural Upper Egypt however, the reality is different.
The law allows authorities to prevent the building of a new church or the licensing of an existing one if public security is “in jeopardy.” This has resulted in dozens of incidents of Muslims protesting against the building or licensing of a church in their village and the authorities subsequently closing down the church.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a report in November 2018 documenting 15 cases of sectarian violence surrounding the legalization of churches, resulting in the permanent closure of 11 of those churches during the period of October 2017-2018.
The pattern has repeated itself: Muslim villagers gather to protest or attack a church; security forces fail to intervene; and the matter is dealt with through local reconciliation sessions. These sessions often result in the closure of a church, while the attackers avoid prosecution. Sometimes the homes or shops of Copts are attacked directly, for instance, when there are rumours in the village of a sexual relationship between a Christian and a Muslim, or when a Copt is rumoured to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad. In these kinds of cases, the Copts in question are often expelled from the village.
“Circumstances in villages allow this to happen,” Samuel Tadros, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told Fanack. “In a village, the ability to mobilise based on rumours is much higher [than in cities] due to the former’s cohesion.”
The problem manifests itself mainly in Upper Egypt, as the number of Christians there is much higher than, for instance, in Egypt’s rural Nile Delta.
The church closures show that Egypt’s sectarian problems run much deeper than IS attacks alone. Fanack collected accounts from several Egyptian Muslims of the strangest rumours circulating among school students, such as that Christians smell bad, or that the wine in the church is actually the priest’s pee or even that before marriage a girl must first sleep with the priest.
“Attacks are not executed by members of Islamist groups, they are regular folks, neighbours or co-workers. The intolerance has become so widespread in this half of the country that it’s now problematic for Christians,” Tadros said.
A woman from a village in the Nile delta, speaking with Fanack on the condition of anonymity, shed light on the spread of sectarian speech in rural communities. Up until she finished high school and moved to Cairo, she believed Christians look different, “with a bigger nose or something,” she said. “People speak very badly about Christians and they don’t understand why the government is building so many churches when there are so few Christians anyway.”
She explained that people in her village feel that if Christians were in power, Muslims would suffer and there is a fear that if Muslims are not pious enough, they will fall subject to conversion by Christians. In that sense, Christians would become “victorious” over Muslims. “It’s a mentality of ‘us versus them’,” she said, driven in part by the conspiracy theory that everyone wages a war against Islam, therefore everyone non-Muslim is an enemy.
Researcher Ishaq Ibrahim from the EIPR identifies two root causes of these sectarian tensions: first, some citizens believe Egypt is an Islamic state and should not allow Christians to build churches. “They feel responsible for enforcing this,” he told Fanack.
Second, the state is sending a negative message by not enforcing the law when churches are attacked. “This tells radicals that they will go unpunished and Christians that they are not equal,” Ibrahim said.
Tadros underscores this: “you can attack Christians and get away with it, which creates a culture of encouragement. Moreover, reconciliation sessions actually give in to mob demands.”
For him, authorities could tackle the problem through the “basic enforcement of the law.” “If someone burns a house, he should be punished,” he says. He goes on to explain that the state refrains from doing so because they feel persecuting perpetrators would stir unrest and they (the state) lack the incentives to take measures.
“The church leadership supports the regime anyway and they get good international press,” Tadros said, referring to Trump’s positive tweet about the new church in the administrative capital. “So why bother?”
But while the Church leadership remains fully supportive of the regime, Tadros sees a changing dynamic within the Coptic community itself, which has started to become more critical.
Ibrahim, who himself hails from Minya, said that when Copts see sectarian incidents occur without accountability, they feel like second-rate citizens and that the state does not support their rights. “The state should protect the right to prayer for all Egyptians, as equals,” he said.
For instance, Coptic anger burst into the open in December 2018, when a police officer guarding a church in Minya killed a Coptic father and son in an apparent dispute. Hundreds of Copts protested at their funeral demanding better protection. Bishop Macarius also made a strong statement in response to this event. “It starts with recognising the scale of the problem,” according to Ibrahim.
In what may be a first step toward that recognition, el-Sisi formed a committee in late December 2018 with representatives of several security agencies to combat sectarianism. He also appointed two Copts as governors that August.
But Tadros remains sceptical. “[There is] no indication that the new committee is represents anything different. The president personally needs to make this a priority.”
An incentive for the regime to better support the rights of Copts could be economic, Tadros argued. “Copts are generally better educated and better represented in the private sector, due to discrimination in the public sector and armed forces,” he said. He now sees a “tsunami” of Copts emigrating, which harms Egypt economically and could provide an incentive for the state to more forcefully address the issue. “If you want Egypt to progress, you need to address the issue of religious persecution,” he concluded.