“Why Call for Having a Church Now?”

Muslim Opposition Village Church

From Open Democracy, a translation of local sheikhs in Upper Egypt who led a campaign against the construction of a church in their village.

In late February 2017, a major international conference hosted by Al-Azhar concluded with the issuance of an important declaration affirming Muslim and Christian religious institutions’ commitment to the principle of equal citizenship.

Yet on the ground, in the village of Kom Al Lofi, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of El Minya, the practices of two Al-Azhar sheikhsSheikh Ahmed Mohamed, an employee of the local mosque, and Sheikh Abdel Gawad, the Imam – suggest a very different take on citizenship than that espoused by Al-Azhar.

In an interview with the official mouthpiece Al-Ahram newspaper, both sheikhs categorically opposed the right of 500 Christian inhabitants to have a church in their village, suggesting that the route to social harmony is for the Christians residents to forgo the idea altogether.

Sheikh Ahmed said that as Copts comprise 7.3% of the village, “their numbers do not allow for the construction of a church.” When the journalist asked if 500 people do not have a right to their own place of worship he responded: “We are a Muslim state (Dawla muslimah) and if there was a pre-existing church we would not object to prayers taking place, but why call for having a church now when we need to unite, not cause the occurrence of strife and this is strife caused by the media!”

He suggested that groups outside the village must be inciting this call for a church because the Christian residents are too poor to contemplate constructing one themselves.

When the journalist questioned how the Muslim majority would be harmed by a church being constructed in the village, given that there are ten mosques, Sheikh Ahmed said: “It is not right and it is not conceivable because our religion is against the construction [of the church]. This is a Muslim state and it has been unacceptable from a security point of view since a long time ago.”

Christians in Kom Al Lofi used to worship in a building that they used as a church but they were prohibited from doing so by the security forces several years ago in response to opposition from local residents and members of religious movements. Since then, families have travelled for miles to worship at churches in other villages.

In recent months, religious hardliners in these other villages have also objected to visitors worshipping in their local churches. In August 2016, security forces promised to reopen the building in Kom Al Lofi to allow Christians to worship there but they have sought the approval of the inhabitants and religious hardliners in the village – which has been repeatedly denied.

Copts have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation.

On 11 April 2017 – two days after suicide bombers attacked churches in Alexandria and Tanta – local authorities allowed Christians to worship in the building in Kom Al Lofi, but they were met by other residents who threw stones at them. Security forces intervened and arrested the perpetrators, but two days later, on 13 April 2017, the houses of three Christian residents were torched by people in the village in retaliation for their worship in the local building.

(The local sheikhs told the Al Ahram newspaper that the Copts had burnt the houses themselves to attract attention).

Copts in Kom Al Lofi have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation. Rather, last week they issued a widely-publicised declaration calling on the state to protect their constitutional right to worship and rejecting any informal mediation by so-called local leaders or any deal that would treat them like second-class citizens.

While they held puritanical Salafi hardliners and the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for fomenting anti-Christian sentiment, they also rejected on this occasion the authority of local sheikhs to determine what, when, where and how they should worship.

It is a tricky and persistent problem. Before condemning too quickly please recall the concerns of some in the United States when a mosque is purposed to be built in their community.

I would like to better understand the pro- and con- concerning church building in Islamic law. Certainly the top scholars in Egypt have given fatwas of permission.

It is very important to hear the opposition of voices like these, and learn. The rule of law is necessary, but so is the engagement of neighbor.

What to do at an impasse?