As I wrote in the first part to this essay series, the tram workers who established St. George parish, the second parish in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo, were successful because of the legal rights that were guaranteed by the 1923 constitution in Egypt. In breaking from a classist environment that alienated them from other Christians, they used the law that allowed them to establish a charitable association to later found a new church. In this essay, I further analyze how class division affected the establishment of the Christian spaces in Egypt.
From one time to another, particularly in an Upper Egyptian city or village, we hear about an attack committed against a Christian charitable association because people intended to “turn it into a church or parish.” Although both spaces are separately defined in the Egyptian constitution, there is a strong social, political, and theological overlapping between both structures.
Jonathan Rashad visited two villages in Minya including the village of Nazlet Hana, which lost seven people in the attack, including two children and the village of Deir al-Garnos, which lost seven of its finest men who were all farmers and laborers that were set to do some work at the monastery.
Over the past three weeks, approximately 140 Coptic Christian families fled the city of Arish, the capital of North Sinai, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity’s office in Arish. The exodus comes after the families were threatened with death by Wilayat Sinai (the Islamic State’s “Sinai Province”) as well as the killing of seven Coptic individuals in armed attacks by the group this February.
Though successive Egyptian constitutions have stipulated that the freedom of belief is “absolute,” “guaranteed,” and “protected,” the actual policies of Egyptian governments prove that it is inherently violated and restricted, unless under some exceptions.
On Sunday, St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo’s Coptic cathedral complex was bombed, killing 29 and wounding four dozen others in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. The government charged with protecting Egypt’s Christians and bringing the perpetrators of this bombing to justice is the same government who looks down on Christians seeing and treating them as second class citizens.
In March of 2015, a Shi’a militia commander in Iraq became an internet celebrity. The man known as Abu Azrael, commander of the Kata’ib al-Imam Ali militant group, gained widespread media attention for his Rambo-like antics, posing in photos with axes and swords, and threatening Islamic State militants by saying he would cut them up “like shawarma.”
Egypt’s recent church building law was largely negotiated behind the scenes between the government and the three largest Christian denominations: the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. Despite concerns over insufficient public dialogue and loopholes which may hinder implementation, many Christians celebrate a formal legal process over the ad hoc nature of security intervention and presidential permits.
On August 30, Egypt’s House of Representatives fulfilled one of their constitutional mandates by passing a church construction law before ending their first session. The law—agreed to in closed-door meetings of Egypt’s Cabinet and representatives of Christian denominations—was rushed through the parliament with minimal debate, after an earlier draft was amended beyond the churches’ liking.
“Churches are owned by God, not by people.” Thus an Alexandria administrative court ruled on March 28, 2016, in a case between the Coptic Orthodox Church and a plaintiff who had bought land from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.
For the past two years, President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi has emphasized religious discourse as part of his central message, asserting the state’s religious and moral authority in the wake of public backlash and a crackdown against Islamists that has dominated the country’s political theater.