Written by Compass Direct News Roger Elliott
Thousands Protest, Vandalize Church in Egypt
At least five hurt as rioters stone, burn structure after inauguration of extension.
By Roger Elliott
ISTANBUL, November 26 (Compass Direct News) - Thousands of Muslim protestors on Sunday (Nov. 23) attacked a Coptic church in a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, burning part of it, a nearby shop and two cars and leaving five people injured.
Objecting to a newly constructed extension to the Coptic church of St. Mary and Anba Abraam in Ain Shams, the huge crowd of angry protestors gathered outside the church at around 5 p.m. following a consecration service for the addition earlier that day.
Chanting, "We will demolish the church," "Islam is the solution" and "No God but Allah," according to Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association, rioters pelted the church with stones and burned part of the structure; priests and worshipers were trapped inside, and five people were injured.
"It was a terrifying moment," said lawyer Nabil Gobrayel, who was inside the church at the time. "They were shouting ‘holy slogans' like, ‘We will bring the church down,', ‘The priest is dead' and ‘The army of Muhammad is coming.'"
Police slow to arrive were not prepared for the scale of the protest. Angry Muslims swarmed to the area from a two-kilometer radius, and although estimates varied, some suggested as many as 8,000 people gathered.
Rioters' stones broke the structure's windows, and a nearby shop and two cars belonging to Christians were set on fire.
Reinforcements for the overwhelmed security forces did not arrive until two hours later and were then engaged in clashes with the mob until the early hours of Monday (Nov. 24) morning.
Armored vehicles brought in riot police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd while fire services aided their efforts with water cannons.
A United Copts of Great Britain statement suggested that police were slow to arrest perpetrators in the early stages of the demonstration but did eventually detain 41 people around midnight.
Of the 38 Muslims arrested, 30 were quickly released "under the pretext of being minors," according to the United Copts statement. Three arrested Christians, however, remained in prison without charges.
United Copts also reported that Wael Tahoon, a police officer, was said to be involved in instigating the attacks.
A source told Compass that Pope Shenouda, head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, ordered that prayers at the church site be stopped.
According to Gobrayel, the church will be closed for two months while officials consider its future.
Opposition from Outset
The newly constructed extension stands on the site of an old factory that was demolished 18 months ago, when the land was purchased using funds raised by donations from the congregation.
When building began, church members were surprised to find that construction of a mosque also started just across the street.
During construction of the church addition, Muslim radicals insulted and harassed workers, issuing death threats and urinating on the structure's walls.
At 10 a.m. on Sunday (Nov. 23), the morning of the consecration service, the adjacent mosque began broadcasting verses from the Quran at high volume.
According to witnesses, the imam of the mosque justified the unusual broadcasts by saying that they were in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid. Christians said this would be highly irregular, however, with area parishioners maintaining it was done to provoke them.
Church leaders had obtained the necessary permits for building the extension, Coptic leaders said, but protestors said the addition was not licensed for prayer and worship.
Christians have found obtaining church building permits from Egyptian authorities rife with obstacles, with many applications never granted.
"The National Assembly cannot make a decision for 15 years about building projects for churches," said lawyer Naguib Gobrail. "Every time they say, ‘This session we can discuss this project,' but the session ends and we see nothing. Everything is only a promise."
In a recent editorial, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Egyptian weekly Watani, addressed the inequality of regulations that govern the building of places of worship.
"It now appears obvious that the government has no intention whatsoever of placing the long-awaited bill for a unified law for building places of worship on its agenda," he wrote. "For four consecutive rounds [of Parliament], the bill has remained shelved despite the need for it to ward off so called sectarian problems that erupt every so often."
Advocacy group Voice of the Copts issued a report on Monday (Nov. 24) that, a day before the attack on St. Mary and Anba Abraam, Muslim radicals ambushed a wedding party at a church just 10 minutes away.
A man and woman interrupted the ceremony shouting obscene remarks, according to Voice of the Copts, and when angered wedding guests ushered them outside, the Copts were set upon by a gang of people waiting in a shop across the road. Two were severely injured.
While Christians account for varying estimates of 10 to 15 percent of Egypt's population and date back to the first century of the faith, churches are still seen as foreign bodies and, in the words of the Ain Shams rioters, an "infidel's worship house in an Islamic Land."
Copyright 2008 Compass Direct News
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