More than a year has passed since the burning and looting of over forty churches and other Christian property around the country on August 14, 2013. It has also been over a year since a promise was made to rebuild the churches that were damaged or fully destroyed, but in reality, little has been done to fulfill those promises. After the rise of now-President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his promise to reconstruct the churches, Christians in Egypt were swept by a hope of safety and security. It appears that many still have faith in Sisi but likely not because he fulfilled his promises or because the government, security apparatus, and the judiciary has taken active measures to protect, prevent, and prosecute the perpetrators of sectarian attacks against minorities. Old and institutionalized, sectarianism has plagued Egypt’s Christians for decades and at the start of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, sectarianism took a turn for the worse, an ongoing problem today.
The promise to rebuild the churches destroyed in the wake of the dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins was meant to occur over three phases. The first phase of reconstruction began in December 2013 in the Minya Governorate on the Al Amir Tadros Church, yet very little news of continued building or completion has been reported since. Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with local NGO, the Egyptian Initiative of Personal rights, told EgyptSource that there are approximately ten construction sites including churches, schools, and other municipal buildings. In addition to the Al Amir Tadros Church in Minya, work also began on the Evangelical Church in Mallawi. Work was also allegedly scheduled to begin on the Sisters of St. Joseph School in Minya and Franciscan Sisters School in Beni Suef, yet the work was slow and there were obstacles in the village itself. A major obstacle is that residents in the village (often the groups behind the attacks) oppose the reconstruction of the church.
Ibrahim also reports that some military businessmen, along with the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, are believed to have set up a fund to raise money for the reconstruction plan and announced that they had raised 76 million Egyptian pounds from twelve businessmen. However, in February 2014, the Egyptian Family House said that the donations only amounted to a little over 1 million Egyptian pounds because some businessmen never came through with promised donations. Ibrahim says it is not clear where the money is now or if it was used for the reconstruction project. He adds, however, that it is a measly amount of money compared to the actual financial need for the project’s completion.
The second phase of rebuilding was scheduled to begin in July 2014, but was also delayed. No updates have been received since, according to Ibrahim. He speculates that the delay in implementation is due to security reasons, and the lack of funds owing to few donations by voluntary donors.
According to Mina Thabet, a researcher for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, only 10 percent of the churches had been reconstructed as of August 2014. Even Al Amir Tadros Church, the first church that the military began to reconstruct, remains unfinished, according to Mina Fayek. To further exasperate the situation, with near daily attacks in Egypt, on September 27, 2014, a bomb went off in front of Al Amir Tadros and a nearby high school, the Coptic High School.
Ibrahim also explains that, of the many churches that did not suffer from severe damage, such as the Coptic Orthodox Diocese in Sohag, the Church is restoring them at its own expense.
In addition to the unfulfilled promises to reconstruct churches, there is a disconnect between the Church leadership and the Egyptian Christian population. Despite reports of monthly kidnappings of Christians, especially young girls, despite continued sectarian violence in Upper Egypt, despite the fact that a presidential permit must be obtained to reconstruct or remodel a church, and despite the fact that the churches burned in the August 2013 attacks are not being reconstructed, the head of the church, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, insists Egyptians are united—“one hand and one heart.”
In a meeting between Pope Tawadros and President Sisi on August 8, 2014, the issue of repeated kidnappings, as well as the age-old conflict surrounding permission to build or remodel churches, were weaved into a discussion that highlighted the importance of building Egypt’s economy and the strength and bond between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and the region. Very little detail was provided about a plan forward, and there was no real public criticism of the State’s failure to protect Egypt’s largest minority groups over the past year, the failure to prevent further violence, or the ability to complete the promised reconstruction of the buildings destroyed. Christians lost their homes, stores, property, and family members, yet no reparations or remedies were provided by the State. Ibrahim explains that some Christians received financial assistance from the different professional associations they belong to, like for example the Association of Pharmacists or other private donations.
In a meeting on September 2, 2014, Pope Tawadros emphasized that enhanced efforts must be made to end violence by extremist groups, according to the World Council of Churches. However, he claims that “[i]f they attack churches we will pray in mosques, if they attack mosques, we will pray on roads. We can pray in a country without a church but cannot pray in a church without a country.” Unfortunately, for many Christians who are praying in courtyards due to a damaged building, they do not and likely cannot go and pray in the local mosques. Pope Tawadros went on to say that the increasing migration of Christians out of Egypt (and the region) was a “dangerous trend,” adding that leaving does not solve the problems they are facing. Unfortunately, what the Church, or the government, are able or willing to do, have not addressed the persistent problems, leaving many Christians’ safety, in their own hands.
The negligence – or willful disregard of the welfare of Egyptian Christians – by the security apparatus and the government brings to light how little has been done or will be done to prevent future attacks or remedy past crimes against this very large minority group. On July 15, 2013 – almost a month before the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood that sparked the widespread attack against churches and personal property – the Egyptian Initiative of Personal Rights warned of the “gravity of sectarian violence and incitement seen in several governorates since the massive demonstrations and marches of 30 June.” The report emphasized that the security apparatus had repeatedly failed to perform “their legally mandated roles” and failed to intervene to protect citizens and their property. Further, the report indicates that the security apparatus had prior knowledge of certain attacks, and still failed to intervene. This is not surprising given the repeated nature of sectarian attacks, failure of security to intervene, failure in remedying the crimes, and repeated failure to protect civilians.
Had a sincere and real effort been made to correct the devastating attacks last year, or for that matter the other serious and symbolic attacks since January 2011, society itself would be able to start reversing the continued tension between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt and other areas that have been subjected to continued sectarian attacks. The inability or unwillingness of the security and government forces to protect, prevent, and prosecute the crimes regularly committed against Christians in Egypt only serves to exasperate the problem. And the empty burned out shells of church buildings serves as a daily reminder of this failure.
As sectarian violence continues to spread through the Middle East, driving out thousands of Christians and other minority groups, Egypt has to develop a powerful system internally to protect Egypt’s Christians and the many other religious minorities in the country. Egypt’s Christians, Shia, Baha’ai, and other ethnic minorities remain vulnerable as the government and security forces refuse to change the pattern of neglect and disregard.
Amira Mikhail is a JD Candidate at Washington College of Law, American University and a former intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East