Egypt Police Use Violence to Block Church Repair

An Egyptian police reportedly struck three women while trying to stop them from repairing the only church in the area, a human rights group said.

The three Coptic Christian women were taking sand into the Archangel Michael Church in the village of Deshasha, south of Cairo, to fix the church's cracked floor when the policeman assigned to guard the church hit them, reported the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) last week.

"The worrying rise in sectarian tension we've seen in Deshasha is a direct result of violations committed by the police," said EIPR director Hossam Bahgat, in a statement. "This incident must be investigated and those responsible held accountable."

According to the women (who requested to remain anonymous), the policeman refused to allow the women to take the sand into the church, telling them "You won't bring one grain of sand into the church but over my dead body."

After the Aug. 17 incident, rumors spread that the Copts had locked the policeman inside the church, beat him, and tore his clothes. As a result, several Copts – both men and women – said they were threatened by local Muslims and were afraid to leave their homes.

Moreover, six Coptic youths were arrested by police on Aug. 17 and 18 to be interrogated on charges of assaulting a public servant and using violence to prevent him from doing his duty. They were later released after questioning.

The policeman who allegedly hit the three women was also questioned by the prosecutor and then released.

"Why would State Intelligence intervene - and illegally at that - to prevent the repair of a floor in an existing church that has not been renovated for more than 75 years?" asked Bahgat.

According to Egyptian rule, an existing church does not need permission to repair its facility, but only needs to give written notice to local authorities.

However, the church officials say the State Security Intelligence has prevented any repairs to the old church for the past 11 years. Church officials say the Archangel Michael Church is the oldest church in the district, built in 1895 and last renovated in 1930.

"The Archangel Michael Church in Deshasha is but one example of the futility of any efforts to reform and unify construction and renovation laws for places of worship so long as security agents continue to violate existing laws in a discriminatory manner and with complete impunity," Bahgat said.

EIPR said it personally observed the "dilapidated state of the wood and brick church," which serves 100 Christian families in the village.

Christians have long complained about laws that require building permits to construct churches when there are none for the building of mosques. They also voice frustration over job discrimination and force conversion to Islam.

But recently, sectarian tension has turned into violence causing alarm within and outside Egypt.

In May, for instance, four Coptic Christians were injured and a Muslim killed in a violent attack on a monastery.

Egypt is home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East, accounting for an estimated six to 10 percent of the country's 76 million people.