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Egypt: Release nine Coptic Christians detained for attempting to rebuild church

The Egyptian authorities must immediately release nine Coptic Christians who were arbitrarily detained after peacefully protesting against the authorities’ refusal to rebuild a church that had burned down over five years ago, Amnesty International said today.

On 30 January 2022, Egyptian security forces arrested nine residents of Ezbet Farag Allah village in el-Minya governorate, all Coptic Christians, and detained them on protest-related charges. The group had appeared in a video published online a week earlier on 22 January standing in peaceful protest against the authorities’ refusal to rebuild the church, which was the only place of worship in the village for Coptic Christians.  

“The Egyptian authorities have for years ignored calls to rebuild the church, leaving around 800 Coptic Christians without a place to worship in their village. Now, in their shameful efforts to silence these calls, they are arbitrarily detaining villagers, criminalizing peaceful protests, and slapping ludicrous charges on those who dare to speak out,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.

“Coptic Christians in Egypt should be afforded the right to collectively practise their religion. For too long, their religious freedom has been undermined by discriminatory laws and practices, which place undue restrictions on the construction and renovation of churches and grant unbridled power to governors and security forces to make decisions over church repairs.”

Villagers held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance 

In 2016, the Church of St. Joseph and Abu Sefein caught fire in suspicious circumstances. According to a lawyer, the cause of the blaze was never properly investigated. Since then, the villagers have been forced to travel to surrounding villages to practice their religion. 

The church was eventually demolished in July 2021, after which a formal request to rebuild it was submitted. Even though the church was granted legal status under a 2011 cabinet decision, el-Minya governor failed to respond to the request to date, in violation of a 2016 church building law that requires a response within four months. 

Coptic Christians in Egypt should be afforded the right to collectively practise their religion.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International

On 22 January, a small group of village residents held a peaceful protest in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Samalut in el-Minya. Just over a week later, nine protesters were arrested and held incommunicado for at least 48 hours at a facility in el-Minya that is controlled by the National Security Agency (NSA). They were interrogated while blindfolded and handcuffed, with no lawyers present, while their families were denied information about their fate and whereabouts. These conditions are akin to enforced disappearances. 

The NSA officers interrogated the detainees over their involvement in the protest and asked them to reveal the identities of those who had called for the demonstration, filmed the videos and posted them online. On 2 and 3 February, they were taken to the Supreme State Security Prosecution, where prosecutors also questioned them over their involvement in the protest and ordered their pre-trial detention. They remain detained pending investigations over “participating in a gathering” and bogus “terrorism”-related charge solely for joining a peaceful protest. 

Discrimination towards Christians

While the Egyptian authorities present Law No. 80/2016 on Building and Repairing Churches as an advancement of the rights of Christians in Egypt, in practice the law is often used to prevent Christians from worshipping by restricting their right to build or repair churches, including those damaged in sectarian attacks. The process for gaining approval for such work from the authorities is lengthy, complicated and opaque. The law allows governors to deny not only permits for construction work on churches, but also the right to appeal.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent Egyptian human rights group, less than 40% of requests to build or repair churches have been conditionally approved since the law came into effect, while only 20% of applicants were granted final approvals. 

According to an expert researcher, while the authorities approve the construction of new churches in affluent areas without much hassle, they often obstruct the construction or repair of small churches in poor rural areas and urban informal settlements.

Since 2016, the authorities have closed at least 25 churches over their “unregistered status” or their desire to avoid sectarian tension, according to the EIPR. In 2017, security forces cited ”security issues” after preventing dozens of Coptic Christians from praying in a house in Alforn village in el-Minya, and closed Naga al-Ghafir church in Sohag in 2019. 

“The right to freedom of religion should never be restricted on discriminatory grounds, including people’s faith, economic status or location. The Egyptian authorities must immediately repeal the country’s discriminatory church law and replace it with one that ensures the right to freedom of religion for all without imposing additional conditions and barriers on religious minorities,” said Philip Luther.  

Background

Since 2013, the Egyptian authorities have failed not only to protect Coptic Christians from repeated sectarian attacks against their communities, but also to bring those responsible for such violence to justice. Instead, authorities have pressured members of Coptic Christian communities to solely rely on customary “reconciliation” and accept out of court settlements agreed by local authorities and religious leaders.  

The EIPR has documented at least 36 cases of violence against Coptic Christian communities between 2016 and 2019. Sectarian attacks are most frequently reported in Upper Egypt’s el-Minya governorate, which is home to a large Christian community and is also one of the poorest governorates in the country. Many of the incidents of violence are sparked by disagreements over the construction or renovation of Christian places of worship.

Islam is the state religion according to the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion for Christians.