Egypt officials arrested 13 Christians earlier this week for collecting donations to rebuild a church without a permit, their lawyer said Wednesday.
The group of believers, who work in a church in the southern city of Assiut, had been collecting money to rebuild a church in another southern town called Saqulta, according to Agence France-Presse.
They had raised suspicion in Saqulta when they asked a local resident where the nearest church was. The resident had then called the local police out of fear that the strangers were terrorists plotting to attack the church, said their lawyer Hani Hanna Soliman.
"They were arrested on Monday and now face the charge of collecting donations without a permit," Soliman told AFP.
Security authorities had arrested eight men and five women and deployed troops to surround local churches. After hours of interrogation, the group was cleared of any terror related charges but continued to be imprisoned because they collected donations without a valid permit, according to their lawyer.
Authorities are on high alert for suspicious activities near churches after seven Muslims in the southern town of Isna set fire to a church and shops owned by Christians on Sunday. The attack was retribution for the alleged rape of a Muslim girl.
Christians in Egypt remain a small and largely powerless minority that often complains about discrimination – which ranges from social to economic to religious oppression – in the Muslim-dominated society.
One of their main complaints is about the requirement to obtain a license to build or rebuild churches when Muslims can build mosques anywhere and without requesting a permit.
Another growing debate is over the right of Egyptian Muslims to convert to Christianity and have their religion changed on their official documents. It is nearly impossible for a convert to legally change his religion to Christianity, which means that the person cannot marry a Christian and their children must be raised as Muslims.
In recent months, converts to Christianity have for the first time challenged the Egyptian system. But as a result, their lawyers and their families have received numerous death threats and in the end were forced into hiding.
Officially, Egypt has no law banning conversion from Islam, but the country's Muslims look upon apostasy very negatively with some even calling for punishment by death.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million. Although they are the minority in Egypt, they represent the largest Christian population in the Middle East.