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Church in Upper Egypt Attacked While Under Construction

12/30/2015 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) - A church under construction in central Egypt was attacked on Thursday, December 10, by a crowd of more than 400 Muslim youth, possibly with incitement from local officials. Following the attack, the new church in the Swada village of Minya has now been closed by local officials, despite the church having obtained the necessary permits required for construction.

At a population of nearly 3,000, Coptic Christians in Swada village comprise about 35% of the village, yet there isn't a Coptic Orthodox church in the village. There is one evangelical church, but the nearest Coptic Orthodox church is more than 8 km from the village.

Due to prohibitive restrictions on church construction, as documented by the Eshhad Project of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the community in Swada had struggled for many years with the government to get the required permits to construct a church in their village.

After receiving these permits in April, they felt that they would finally have a church in their village instead of driving about thirty minutes to pray at the nearest church.

However, because of the control of political Islam over the state officials, conservative Muslims in the village prevented them from openly constructing their church, although the government gave them the required permits.

"We constructed [a] building in secret as a single story home, without informing any one that this building will be a church," E.A.*, a Christian young man from Swada told International Christian Concern (ICC).

"It was known that this building is owned by one of the village's Coptic Christians, but [it] was still under construction. So we have been praying in this building in secret until it is finished," E.A. said.

The Christians had added an altar inside the building and had been holding prayers there in the early morning on Sundays since May of 2015.

"On Thursday, December 10, we began to make the [finishing touches] of the building from inside, installing ceramics and marble, etc. when the mayor of the village, Hassan Khalaf Abdul Aziz, came to the house at 5:00 pm," P.W., a leader among the Christian community told ICC.

"He asked me to stop working on the building and told me that he learned that we are building the church and asked me to stop working on the building and give him the key of the building," P.W. said. "The mayor alleged that others Muslims in the village learned about the church and he wanted to close it to prevent any sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims that would occur if we continued working on the building," he said.

"I then refused to give him the building's key and he went away," P.W. said.

Tensions between the mayor and the Christian community have been high since the parliamentary elections, in which his brother was a candidate who failed to secure a seat. The family has blamed Christians for his failure because they did not vote for him in the elections.

At 6:00 pm, less than an hour after the mayor left the building, a crowd of more than 400 Muslim young men from the village attacked the building and the workers.

"They destroyed the marble, ceramics, cement, wood and church's signs inside the buildings and destroyed the contents of the building, and attacked and injured some of the workers," P.W. told ICC.

Following the attack, the mayor came again and took all the workers and protesters away and took the key and closed the building. 

"When the police arrived and asked as to identify who attacked the building, we told them we don't know in order to protect the other Christian families in the village and to calm the situation because if we told them about the names of the attackers, the attacks against us may be renewed again once the security forces leaves the village," P.W. continued.

The police then closed the building and assigned guards who have protected the building since December 10.

The likely outcome will be a "customary reconciliation session," during which terms will be put down that will make it nearly impossible to finish the church construction.

A similar scenario played out in El-Our Village, also in Minya, regarding the construction of a church in memory of the 21 Martyrs killed by ISIS in Libya. In this case, even the order of President Sisi was not enough to keep tensions from boiling over and Christians being forced to give up their rights.

Even once the issue is resolved, the fear of follow-up attacks remains present. "After the police are no longer guarding the building we cannot pray at it. The Christian families will be afraid to come to pray at the building again knowing it may be attacked at any time," P.W. said.

For the Christians of Swada village, the hope of praying in peace in a church may now be lost. There is a desperate need for legal reform, but as is often the case it is the violence in the street that carries the day.

Until the mindset shifts and there is a place for all Egyptians to worship in peace, attacks like this will continue.