The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) issued its fifth report last September, covering the state of rights in Egypt throughout 2008. Two items figured highly on the report and were described as causes of concern for the NCHR and of grave concern for the entire community. One was the growing sectarian tension, given that minor individual squabbles between Muslims and Copts more often than not now escalate into incidents of horrific violence. The second is the inequality between Copts and Muslims regarding the building and restoration of places of worship. The report stressed that “the NCHR confirms that the solution to this problem is to stress citizenship rights, equality and equal opportunity, and insist that the bill on building places of worship presented to Parliament by the NCHR should be taken into consideration”.
The NCHR expressed concern over the official indifference towards these two problems despite the major threat they pose to the unity and peace of our society. What I consider really worrying, however, is that this is the third year in succession that the NCHR has been calling for a unified law for building places of worship, but to no avail. The government, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and Parliament all remain apathetic about the issue, while the tension resulting from the inequality continues to place social peace in jeopardy. The complaints I tackled in a series of four editorials last month exposing the unfair practices by administrative and security bodies against Copts offered ample evidence to the Copts’ suffering. Yet these cases are but a thumbnail sketch of the grievances of Copts across Egypt.
Among the complaints I recently received was one from the bishopric of North Sinai. As in the cases I cited before, the complaint demonstrates the oppression Copts suffer from whenever they try to erect a building of any sort, be that a church, a church-affiliated building—usually used to house health or social services—or even a house. Officials, beginning with the governor and down to security and administrative staff, seem bent on oppressing and humiliating Copts without a trace of shame. Further aggravating the problem is the total absence of systematic accountability.
The Coptic Orthodox bishopric of North Sinai owns a 1260-sq.m. plot of land in the village of Atef Sadat near the coastal town of Arish, which lies across the 10m-wide street from the bishopric. In April 2007, the bishopric filed a request for licence to build a social services building on the land. The licence no.1133 was issued on 27 December 2007. Accordingly, the bishopric submitted on 23 March 2008 a written pledge to supervise the construction work as well as a contract with a certified contractor, a member of the Egyptian Federation for Construction and Building Contractors.
The foundation work of the new building started on 15 November 2008, amid a general feeling of comfort since all the work was licensed. But a police officer from Arish police station dropped by and ordered the work halted. When those in charge of the project protested that the work was fully licensed, the officer intimidated the driver of the loader and forced him to leave. When asked about the reason behind the surprise intervention he said he would shortly provide the bishopric with the justification. A few hours later, the building department of Arish issued an official order halting the construction work on grounds that the bishopric had not submitted a pledge of supervision or a contract with a certified contractor.
The bishopric officials were stupefied, since submission of the two documents in concern was a precondition for the licence. It appeared as though the building department had hastily issued the halt order upon the request of the police officer, and had thus to furnish some justification for its decision. On 5 February 2009 the head of Arish City Council sent the archbishop a letter abrogating the licence no.1133 on grounds that the plot of land in question was State property. Yet the governorial decision no.348 allocating the land to the bishopric was the first pre-requirement and the first document submitted in the file of the application for the licence. It was now obvious that authorities were intent on preventing the project from seeing light. Upon which the bishopric went for help to the governor who accordingly asked them to file a new application and submit all the documents anew. Can the reader think of any more humiliation?
The bishopric had to comply, and filed an application on18 April 2009, but to date no reply has come from the governor’s office.
Utterly frustrated, North Sinai Copts are circulating the story, with its full mockery of the constitutional principles of citizenship rights and equality, among themselves. The question which begs an answer is whether the recent NDP congress with its motto of “For you” concerns Egypt and Egyptians or some other nation?