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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Christians not doing too well in Egypt

There are rumors that Barack Obama will make a major foreign policy speech in a Muslim capital during his first hundred days in office, and many think it will be in Cairo.

It would be interesting to see if he goes there as a way to pander to Muslims, or as a proud Christian who is also the US President. Because things have not been too great for Christians in Egypt lately.

I did not see this reported in any English-language press, but according to an article in Al Masry al-Youm:
In the "District of Rain" in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, an ugly scene of Muslim militants burned a church, after prayers Friday (29/11), chanting "God is great ...! God is great!", as if they had infiltrated by Bar-Lev line or regained Jerusalem!
An AP article mentions some other incidents:
Early in the morning two Sundays ago, hundreds of Christian Egyptians quietly slipped into a former underwear factory where they had discreetly set up a church and held their first service. Bells rang and hymns were sung.

A crowd of angry Muslims quickly gathered, threw stones at the building and burned banners that said, “No to the church.” They tried to storm the gates, clashed with police and chanted, “The church has fallen, the priest is dead,” according to witnesses.

In fact, no one died, but 13 people were reported injured. For Egyptians in general, the incident in the blue-collar district of Ain Shams served as a warning that Muslim-Christian clashes, largely confined to the south of the country in recent years, have seeped into the capital.

Two incidents this summer underscore the problem. In one southern city, a Muslim man was killed in clashes over the expansion of a Coptic Orthodox monastery, and Muslims torched Christian villagers’ homes because a priest was seen holding Mass inside a house, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a rights group.

Christians, an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s 79 million people, long have complained of government restrictions on building new churches.

To build a church or even renovate an existing one, clearance is needed from several security agencies and government bodies, and often is refused.

A church can’t be built near a mosque, but “near” is not defined. And nothing prevents Muslims from building a mosque near a church, even without a permit. As a result, most of Cairo’s churches are surrounded by mosques, often bigger and taller.

Egyptian Christians don’t have enough churches to accommodate their numbers, so they hold informal services in community centers, bookstores or homes.

“There is this psychological terrorism from Islamists that prevents local authorities from demolishing illegally built mosques and complicates permit procedures for Copts,” said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Watani, a newspaper run by members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt’s main Christian denomination.

In Ain Shams, where about 4,000 Christian families are vastly outnumbered by Muslims, congregants bought the factory three years ago and quietly began setting up their church.

Muslims bought a parking lot across the street and started building a mosque — one of about five within a few blocks. It was from these mosques that the angry crowd rallied when word spread that the Copts were at prayer.

But at their first service, the Christians announced their presence with bells and hymns — even distributing chocolates outside the building — apparently hoping the church would be accepted as a fait accompli. Instead, the riot erupted.

Anthony ended up being led out of the church protected by police while the mob hurled insults and stones.

The factory building’s doors are chained shut, and the Coptic Church has said that to avoid further trouble it will not seek to hold services there. But Father Anthony still is shocked at the Muslim reaction.

“Would they tear the factory down if it was turned into a theater or a nightclub?” he said.