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On Building Churches

Another report I had earlier prepared, published in www.arabwestreport.info and on our peacemaking project webpage at www.enawu.com, is now posted here. This is a fascinating tale about how Christians can build churches in Egypt. This is a controversial subject, and human rights lawyers from both Islam and Christianity highlight the lack of one law to guide both mosque and church construction. Even so, the story told here of Fr. Yu’annis, who earlier was featured for his comments on Nag Hamadi, shows the power of personal relationships in getting a job done in Egypt. For those of you who have heard that in Egypt a presidential decree is necessary even to change a light bulb in a church, you are encouraged to read on…

On January 6 six Coptic Christians were murdered as they exited Christmas Eve mass in the town of Nag Hamadi, Qena. This event followed recent attacks on Christians in the towns of Farshut, Dayrut, Izbet Bushra, and elsewhere. While events like these are usually tied to other issues in the communities in which they occur, and not simply devices of persecution aimed at the Christian population, many Copts have interpreted these events as evidence of the weakness of the government in providing protection, if not willful negligence of their rights. They then succumb to the idea that the nation is Islamic and against them, and this attitude colors their every perception, including the advantages which Copts enjoy today.

Another area which mobilizes Coptic frustration against the state is in its policy of church building. Since early Islamic times the so-called Pact of Omar, the third caliph of the Islamic state, allowed Christians many freedoms of worship in their own community, but forbade the construction of new churches or the renovation of old ones, without the specific authorization of the head of state. While this policy has been unevenly applied throughout history, it is true that Christians have suffered because of it. Often cited in more recent history is the Hamayonic Script, which was employed in the Ottoman Empire to regulate ecclesiastic matters. Although popular consciousness, both Muslim and Christian, still operate under the assumption of this ruling, according to Dr. Nabil Luka Bebawy, a Coptic member of the Shura Council, it has no standing whatsoever in Egyptian law.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that the difficulty experienced in building churches differs from the relative ease in which mosques are constructed. Christians complain that even when permission to build a church is granted, the local security authorities will often prevent them. While this can be in fear of offending local Muslim sentiments and bringing on sectarian strife, Christians sometimes accuse security itself of Islamic bias in preventing construction. Human rights advocates, both Muslim and Christian, have called on the government to pass the Unified Law for Building Houses of Worship, which would streamline the process and place each community on equal footing. Though this issue has stalled in Parliament, the approval for building churches was shifted from the national authority to the regional, and each governor is now responsible for issuing or denying the request to build.

The following story is about Fr. Yu’annis of Qufada, a village in the bishopric of Maghagha and the governorate of Assiut. It will illustrate the frustrations of the Christian community, but also provide an example of how they can be transcended. While the difficulties faced in building churches are true and real in many parts of the country, the conduct of Christians can make a difference in alleviating them. At the very least, it will demonstrate that discrimination against Christians is not systematic, and that building churches to meet community needs is possible.

In 1996, Fr. Yu’annis was a forty year old priest. Though he was still relatively young he had already acquired seventeen years of experience, serving in the historic Holy Family site and village of Shanin al-Nasara. This village was then in the bishopric of Beni Suef, under the authority of Bishop Athanasius. After the death of the bishop in 2001 the bishopric was divided into five smaller districts, and Fr. Yu’annis found himself situated in the newly created bishopric of Maghagha. The successes of Fr. Yu’annis, however, all date previous to the bishop’s death, which was to be an ominous date for another reason in the story to be told.

Bishop Athanasius was acclaimed as a wise and generous leader, looking beyond the interests of the Christian community. He was aware not only that Muslims suffered the same difficulties as Christians—unemployment, underdevelopment, unsanitary conditions—but also that the best way to ensure Christian success in the area was to knit the two religious communities together. In the neighboring governorate of Assiut there had been a rise in Islamic militancy, and had produced a counter-reaction of Christian withdrawal from society. In hopes of alleviating this social trend, Bishop Athanasius created a charitable non-governmental organization, Better Life, which though administrated by Christians actively and intentionally served both communities. As a result, Bishop Athanasius enjoyed great popularity and influence in the region.

During his tenure Bishop Athanasius consecrated many priests, many of which followed his example. Fr. Yu’annis was one of them, and spoke very highly of his bishop, whose lead he tried to follow. The recognition of the importance of good relations with the authorities, however, did not come right away, though ignorance or naiveté may have been a cause.

As mentioned earlier, Shanin al-Nasara is a Holy Family site, reputed to be the first landing place of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Upper Egypt after they departed from Maadi, Cairo. Here they rested seven days, and drank from a well whose location is still preserved today. Due to this fact the town receives thousands of pilgrims every year, and local leadership under the initiative of Fr. Yu’annis decided it would be fruitful to build a conference center adjacent to the ancient church. As construction began, however, security immediately arrived and stopped the building. Fr. Yu’annis was taken to the police station for questioning. He would later testify that he did not think he was doing anything wrong, as he was not building a church, but a center for services.

The police did not see it that way. According to Fr. Yu’annis he spent the night in the station, not behind bars but yet under guard. The next day the policeman interrogated him very harshly, insulting both him and his mother. Upon insisting he was not building a church the officer mocked him, “President Clinton insisted he did nothing with Monica, and we should believe that you are telling the truth?” Nevertheless, after several hours Fr. Yu’annis affixed his name to a document stating his intentions for the building, and was released.

Fr. Yu’annis left the station and traveled immediately to Cairo. In typical modern day Coptic fashion he was thinking, in all probability correctly, of demanding his rights. Knowing a Christian there who had a relationship with the Ministry of the Interior, Gen. Habib Adli, he asked for an audience. Though the minister was unavailable he did succeed in meeting his deputy, Gen. Rida al-Habbal, and told him what had happened. The general responded sympathetically to his story, and sent him back to Minia to meet Gen. Muhammad Sadek, an inspector for State Security. Incidentally, the two men’s wives were sisters to each other.

Gen. Sadek received Fr. Yu’annis warmly and asked him what was wrong. Upon recounting the incidents he began to cry, and the general placed his hand on the priest’s shoulder, telling him he would take care of everything. Security clearance to build the service center was granted, and the officer who maltreated him was docked pay, reassigned elsewhere, and reduced in rank. The greatest offer, however, came next.

Gen. Sadek asked Fr. Yu’annis if the church was experiencing any other difficulties with its houses of worship. “Most certainly,” he replied, and he began telling the officer about each one. Upon completion he was asked if he wished to be the official church representative before the security agency, so that there would be good contact between them and the church. Fr. Yu’annis smiled broadly, and took his leave to present this idea to Bishop Athanasius.

The bishop was of course pleased by this arrangement, and sent Fr. Yu’annis back to meet Gen. Sadek, presenting him with an ornate Qur’an, complete with gold tinged pages and raised lettering, as an expression of thanks. The general accepted this gift, and their relationship began. Bishop Athanasius had earlier explained to Fr. Yu’annis that there is an important distinction between a blessing and a bribe. A bribe is given when one asks for that which is outside his right; a blessing is given as encouragement and thanks for one who will help obtain that right. A Christian should have no part in the former, but the latter is quite normal and necessary in Egypt. As the years went by Fr. Yu’annis and Gen. Sadek would mutually exchange several gifts, including sheep and chocolate on the occasions of holiday. They maintain their friendship to this day.

Each time Fr. Yu’annis would approach Gen. Sadek with a church building issue he would present the facts, making certain to be accurate, never exceeding that which was necessary for Christian worship in a particular community. With this report the security would investigate the area in question, agree on the assessment of the church, and grant authority to build, renovate, or expand under certain conditions. As all—bishop, priest, and security—were conscious of the sensibilities of local Muslims and their possible disturbance by the building of a church, everything was done through consensus and avoidance of ostentation. The church tower, for example, was kept below the height of the village mosque minaret. Aware that the church was a tool for worship, not for projection of identity, neither the bishop nor the priest had any objections, which kept also the objections of local Muslims at bay. In the positive atmosphere previously created by the social development activities of Bishop Athanasius, Fr. Yu’annis helped facilitate the approval of building, renovating, or expanding twenty-four churches, which will be listed below.

These churches were built over a period of five years which ended in 2001. This year marked two unfortunate occurrences for the area. First, Bishop Athanasius died, and his bishopric was divided into smaller districts. The bishops newly consecrated for these areas by definition lack the experience and insight of their predecessor, and have not yet been able to earn the same level of respect. Second, Gen. Sadek was promoted outside of the area to a position in Cairo, and Fr. Yu’annis has not succeeded in cultivating as close a relationship with his successor. Perhaps personal mistakes have been made; perhaps the sectarian climate affects both Muslims and Christians. The result, however, is that since 2001 there have been only two authorizations granted for building activity in the area.

This story lends credence to both sides of the Coptic debate about the society they live in. On the one hand, it both begins and ends with the fact of difficulty in obtaining authorization. There is no Unified Law for Building Houses of Worship, and everything seems to depend on the whims of personal relationship. Yet on the other hand the reality of personal relationship suggests that Christians can find wide freedom to erect structures as necessary, provided they consider the contexts in which they live. Though this does not provide the clear cut rule of law which so many desire, it is fitting with Egyptian society at all levels; Egypt is not a country of rules but of relationships. Within these relationships Christians, like all Egyptians, can live and worship freely. Without them Christians, like all Egyptians, can be lost.

Churches in Maghagha

1)      The Church of the Archangel

2)      The Church of St. Dimyana

3)      Lighthouse Church of the Holy Virgin

4)      The Church of St. Mark – Seat of the Bishopric

Village Churches around Maghagha

5)      The Church of St. Mark, Abbad Sharuna

6)      The Church of the Archangel, Sharuna

7)      The Church of St. George, Gazirat Sharuna

8)      The Church of St. George, Belhasa

9)      The Church of St. George, Sheikh Masud

10)   The Church of St. George, Barmasha

11)   The Church of the Holy Virgin, Beni Walims

12)   The Church of St. Mark, Nazlet Asr

13)   The Church of St. George, Sheikh Ziyad

14)   The Church of the Archangel, Dahrut

15)   Social Service Building, Shanin al-Nasara

16)   The Church of the Holy Virgin and Bishop Samuel, Izbet Rizq

17)   The Church of the Holy Virgin, Abasiya

Beni Mazar

18)   The Church of the Apostles, Ashruba

19)   The Church of the Holy Virgin, al-Mahtan

20)   The Church of the Holy Virgin, Nazlet Gulf

21)   The Church of the Holy Virgin, Batruga

Mattai

22)   The Church of St. Athanasius, Kafur

23)   The Church of the Holy Virgin, al-Kawadi

Samalut

24)   The Church of the Archangel, al-Qatusha

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