On April 24th, 2022, after outcry from human rights organizations, the Egyptian State released nine Coptic Christians who were detained for attempting to rebuild their community church. They had been detained for nearly three months.
Coptic Christians, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, make up roughly 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 103 million people.
The community has long complained of discrimination and underrepresentation.
The nine residents of Ezbet Faragallah village in Minya governorate, south of Cairo, were part of a protest of about 70 people who on January 22nd had demanded the restoration of their church, which had burned down five years earlier. The act is widely believed to have been arson. Most in the village, including the clergy, believe it was burnt down by extremists; but an Egyptian law restricting Christian worship kept them from putting down a single brick to rebuild it.
The church was burnt down in 2016, and clergy petitioned the government for the right to restore it, but received no response from authorities, even when it was fully demolished by the local government in July 2021.
This delay is in direct contradiction of the restriction itself, which maintains that there should be a period of no longer than four months between the submission of such a request and an official response. Clergy and adherents are forbidden from building new churches, rebuilding damaged churches, or even making repairs to their churches without special approval from the Egyptian government. Mosques require no such approval.
Why such a double standard exists can be traced back to Article Two of Egypt’s Constitution: “Islam is the religion of the State … The principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.” Sharia law follows the Muslim faith and belief in Allah and does not specifically address non-Muslim places of worship; strictly interpreted, the law forbids the building or renovating of churches in Egypt. Although the law is not uniformly enforced across Egypt, the aversion toward Christians in Egypt lives on.
According to Amnesty International, the Egyptian authorities point to Law No. 80/2016, on Building and Repairing Churches, as an advancement of the rights of Christians in Egypt; however, in practice, the law is often used to prevent Christians from worshiping by restricting their right to build or repair churches, including those damaged in sectarian attacks.
The nine villagers belonging to the The Church of Saint Joseph and Abu Sefein protested and were charged with “participating in an assembly that endangers public peace, and committing a terrorist act with the aim of disturbing public security,” according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
According to EIPR, authorities have conditionally approved less than 40 percent of requests to build or repair churches since the law came into effect, with only 20 percent granted final approval.
In a statement last month, the rights watchdog Amnesty International called for the residents’ release, saying the authorities had “for years ignored calls to rebuild the church, leaving around 800 Coptic Christians without a place to worship in their village.”
They were released this past Sunday when Coptic Christians, as well as Orthodox Christians around the world, celebrated Easter – a true victory on Christianity’s holiest day.
The restrictions against Christians in Egypt are unfortunately not unique. Islamic Shariah, and anti-Christian sentiment are common across the Middle East. In many predominantly Muslim countries, your religion is a part of your birth certificate and is determined by the religion of your parents.
This leads to discrimination on a social level, which is in most circumstances, perfectly legal. And, although anyone may change their paperwork in order to officially denote a conversion to Islam, in most Middle Eastern countries, converting from Islam to Christianity, or any minority religion, is not legally recognized.
Those who wish to publicly convert from Islam to Christianity often face legal action under strict blasphemy laws, which include imprisonment, forced conversions back to Islam, and even death. According to Pew, 90% of countries in North Africa and the Middle East had some form of blasphemy laws.
These punishments are sometimes carried out by the courts, but are also often carried out by mob violence. In some nations, such as Pakistan, where a seminarian was recently stabbed to death in a “witch hunt,” based on a child’s dream, a mere accusation of proselytizing can lead to violence.
The Egyptian Criminal Code explicitly outlaws blasphemy. Nestled among prohibitions on advocating “extremist thoughts,” “instigating sedition,” or “prejudicing national security.” Article 98 also outlaws “disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto.” Although the strong anti-apostasy measures of neighboring nations are not technically in place in Egypt, the Egyptian Criminal Court’s anti-blasphemy precedent has been used to go after so-called “apostates” in the past. And although the Egyptian government recognizes other Abrahamic religions, in practice, government and society is centered around the practice of Islam to the point of exclusion for other faiths.
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