Islamists Drive Cairo Church Shut Down

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Hundreds of Muslims, angered
by the prospect of a government-closed church re-opening in their
neighborhood, protested outside the church yesterday, causing the
provisional military authority to back away from its promise to allow
Orthodox clergy to reopen it.

Protesters started gathering
on Thursday afternoon outside the Church of the Virgin Mary and
St. Abraam in Ain Shams, a poor section of northeastern Cairo. The
church was scheduled to reopen that day, but protestors surrounded the
building, preventing anyone from getting into it and trapping priests
who were inside.

Several people were injured in fights
between the Copts and the Muslims. Protestors threw rocks at each other,
according a witness. One Coptic bystander was seriously injured,
another witness said, when he took out a cell phone camera to record the
protest and a group of Muslims surrounded and beat him. Several Copts
were arrested, according to church officials. 

It was unknown if any of the Muslim protesters have been arrested.

 Peter Rizq, a lay minister at the church, said he, the priests and
others trapped in the building found a way to sneak to safety after
Muslims threatened to kill the head priest of the congregation.


“He [the priest] told us, ‘We need to go home now,’” Rizq said. “He
told us we couldn’t stay any longer in the church because it would cause
more problems.”

 The men left the church building one by
one, but some of them were later arrested and charged with illegal
possession of weapons, a charge Rizq said was untrue.

 Intimidation
This
is the second time the church has been closed because of local Muslim
opposition. Three years ago, in November 2008, Egypt’s State Security
Intelligence service closed the church building after a group of
protesting Muslims blocked the entrance.

 Prior to their
attempts to open the church building, members of the congregation held
meetings in two rented apartments. Eventually the congregation gathered
donations and bought a plot of land with a building, converting the
inside of it into a worship place. Other than signs outside the
building, there were none of the structures traditionally associated
with a Coptic Orthodox church, such as crosses or domes.


 Problems started soon after the renovations began. A group of Muslims
bought a piece of land across from the church building and hastily
started constructing a mosque. When the mosque was still unfinished, the
Muslims blocked access to the church building; on the day it was
scheduled to open, they placed prayer mats in front of the makeshift
mosque, extending the rows to the entrance of the church.

 The church building has been closed since the confrontation in 2008.

 Coptic Demand
In
March, in response to an attack against the Church of the Two Martyrs
St. George and St. Mina in Sool, protesters filled the front lot of the
Radio and Television Building in Cairo, demanding among other things
that the Church of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam be reopened.

On March 4, a group of rioting Muslims set the Church of the Two
Martyrs on fire to punish the Christians for a relationship between a
Christian man and a Muslim woman. The church building was left in ruins
but rebuilt by the military one month later.


 Military
officials conceded to the demands of the Christian protesters in March
but were slow to fulfill promises to allow the church to reopen. The
issue was given new impetus after a set of attacks in Imbaba, Cairo on
May 7 in which 15 people were killed and two churches were attacked, one
of which was nearly gutted by the fires set by members of the Salafi
movement.

The rioters claimed they were attacking the churches
to free a woman they said had converted to Islam from Christianity and
was allegedly being held against her will by Coptic priests.

 Salafi Muslims claim to pattern their beliefs and practices on the
first three generations of Muslims. They have attacked Christians
increasingly since the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising that led to the ousting
of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

 Rizq said normally relations between Copts and Muslims in his community are peaceful.


 “In general they are very friendly, as neighbors and friends and
invite each other for weddings and celebrations,” he said. “But when it
comes to building a church, they all stand up and disagree with it.”

 Rizq said all the congregation wants is equal protection under the law.  “We want the law to take place,” he said. “A decision was taken by the
government and the prime minister, so we want everything to be
official, done according to the law.”

 Rizq added that all
was quiet at press time but still very tense. Imams were walking through
the area surrounding the church building “calling for jihad,” but the
army had cordoned off the area. A meeting convened by the army took place Saturday between the priests of the church and the
Islamic elders of the community.

 Despite this overture, Rizq said he has little hope the church will ever open.


  100 percent don’t think they will open the church there, because
they [the Muslims] are completely against the idea of having a church
there,” he said.  “Even yesterday someone [a protester] said, ‘You can
open up the church, and I will go and blow myself up inside it.’”

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