Priest Risks Life for Churchless Christians in Egypt

A Coptic priest who renovated his home to accommodate Christian ceremonies in his churchless village is not afraid of the death threat Fatwa issued against him, he declared.

The Rev. Estefanos Shehata of the village Upper Ezbet Dawoud Youself, about 124 miles south of Cairo, is fed up with the unfair treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

There is no church for the 800 Copts in his area, which means funeral and marriage ceremonies are carried out in the streets, he complained in a recent letter to the Middle East Christian Association.

Two years ago he converted part of his family house into a space where these services could be performed and went to obtain a permit for its use. Authorities kept refusing to give a direct answer and finally told him to talk to the village's Muslims because they didn't want to be responsible for any problems.

Shehata then talked to the village's Muslims, who he said have a good relationship with the Copts in the area, about the permit.

The Muslim in his village held a meeting with the elders of neighboring villages, and, to his surprise, they were "extremely angry" with his proposal and issued a Fatwa (religious edict) calling for his death.

"They told the Copts in the village that it takes just one bullet to get rid of me since there is no 'blood money' for killing a Christian," Shehata wrote in the letter.

"I have been banned from my village for over a month now. I cannot even go [see] my mother."

In Egypt, Christians are not allowed to construct or fix churches unless they receive a permit from governors. Nearly all requests for church building permits are denied. However, there are no such building permits necessary for the construction or fixing of mosques.

"What harm is it to you if we have a hall? What harm is it to you if we build a church? This is one question," Shehata said in an interview with the advocacy group Free Copts. "Secondly, why do we have to conduct a funeral in the street? Why do we have to celebrate weddings, with the bride and groom standing in the street? This is definitely not right. Why are Muslims angry when Christians want to pray?"

Though Egypt's constitution guarantees religious freedom, in practice the situation is very different.

"Enough humiliation and persecution of the Copts. I do not fear death and issuing a Fatwa to spill my blood is an honor to me," he said.

Egypt is predominantly (90 percent) Sunni Muslim with the rest of the population (10 percent) being Christian. Although Egypt's Christian population is small, it stands as the largest Christian community in the Middle East and is also among the oldest.

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