With only one week to go for the upcoming convention on citizenship rights to be held by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), I present this urgent complaint to both the convention and the NCHR. It concerns the Church of Mar-Girgis in Kom-Hamada, Beheira, west of the Delta, and its long, arduous—and finally unsuccessful—attempt to obtain official and security permits to restore and renovate the 54-year-old building.
Every time it is brought to my attention that a church has been repeatedly denied permits for necessary repair work—and there appears to be a countless number of these cases—I cannot help feeling utterly frustrated and vexed. The so-called Coptic File, it is obvious, is controlled by runaway police and security whims, yet the NCHR insists that its proposal for a unified law for building places of worship should include a clause pre-requiring security approval for building. Two other proposals which do not stipulate security approval are also awaiting consideration by Parliament.
Kom-Hamada’s Mar-Girgis church was built during Egypt’s golden liberal era, before obnoxious waves of fanaticism overtook the country. Its cornerstone was laid in May 1953 in a ceremony attended by Major Anwar al-Sadat on behalf of Egypt’s then president Mohamed Naguib, State officials, clerics, as well as the general public of Kom-Hamada—Muslim and Christian. It is hard to mistake the liberal climate we miss so much today.
It appears reasonable to assume that, as the years passed, the building needed repairs every now and then, and it appears that these were executed without much fuss. These were the good old days when religions and places of worship were accorded due respect, since they were generally seen as beacons of love and promoters of peace. Then came the sad days when religiosity acquired the definition of hating and fighting holders of other faiths and their respective places of worship. The ailment spared neither the educated nor the uneducated, but spread to civil servants whose main responsibility is to serve all Egyptians indiscriminately. They appeared to increasingly see their duty as being faithful to their religion through obstructing anything and everything which could benefit those who belonged to another religion. It did not help at all that Egypt lacked a reliable system for questioning and accountability.
During the last three decades the church building underwent no repairs, since permits for such works had become all but impossible to obtain. In 1998 a presidential decree was issued delegating the approval of restoring and renovating churches to the governors, and another in 2005 authorising governors to approve demolishing, rebuilding, or expanding churches. These authorities had previously been exclusively the president’s. The priest of Mar-Girgis consequently rushed to apply to Beheira governor for permission to rebuild, renovate, and expand the church, especially that the condition of the building now threatened the lives of the congregation. In January 2006 the governor issued his approval provided the church presented the necessary documents, which it promptly did. The documents included an official report on the condition of the building, the authenticated ownership documents of the church, and documents concerning registration and taxation.
In July 2006 the Beheira building authority asked for an authenticated land plot of the church site. When the priest applied for one from the authority concerned, he was told that all the data required was included in the original, authenticated, 1957 ownership document, and that the document he had applied for did not exist in the first place, so could not be handed to him. The building authority, however, persisted in its demand, and the priest found himself at his wits end. He rushed to the governor to help him out but, before the governor could do anything, a knockout blow was dealt to the case.
The knockout blow everyone who has ever treaded a similar path is well familiar with is the security decision, issued once the pre-required security approval is requested, to deny all permits for any construction work. This is exactly what happened with Mar-Girgis church, on grounds that there was no presidential decree approving the work. The security apparatus seemed to be sneering at the actual presidential and governorial decrees, safe in the assurance that no security official would ever be taken to account.
The last chapter in the Kom-Hamada tragedy saw part of the roof of the church fall in as the congregation attended Holy Mass on Friday 2 November. Panic prevailed and anger set in at the injustice inflicted upon the congregation and the inability to work any repairs because the security authorities say so. The priest reported the incident to the police, sent complaints to all the officials concerned, then sat back waiting for divine justice since the earth appeared to offer none. To all concerned with passing a unified law for building places of worship, I present this case which, tragically, is all too common.