Source: LaCroix International
In the street that opens on to Bab El Louk Place in central Cairo, a dozen armed police stand outside the Church of St Mary and St John the Baptist. The building, which has still not been completed although construction began in 2008, shines like a beacon in the Cairo sky on the Coptic Church’s Christmas eve, January 6.
Although it is still early, forty faithful are already sitting in the nave of the Church amid the hushed silence.
“People continue to come despite the recent incidents,” comments Fr Youhanna Makin, who will celebrate the service. “In fact, even more are coming to pray now.”
This year, Christmas was again celebrated with bitterness and tears. The absence of 27 women and children, who died in the December bomb attack on St Mark’s Cathedral, weighs on people’s minds.
For the last few days, another anger has added to the sadness. A proposed US law that aims to assign supervision of construction sites of Christian sites in Egypt to the American Secretariat of State has upset Egyptians. The draft law, submitted to the US Congress by Republican congressman Dave Trott, aims to monitor the rebuilding of churches damaged in the post-Rabaa Islamist attacks in 2013 and to oversee the delivery of construction permits required under a new law adopted by the Egyptian Parliament last summer.
“It is very nice of the United States to want to help us but we cannot accept it,” apologizes Fr Youhanna. “It is the responsibility of the government to carry out those tasks and we prefer to keep the management of our churches to ourselves.”
While the tone is measured, the announcement in the Egyptian press of the proposal, which is expected to be presented to the US Congress shortly, angered Egyptian government authorities as well as the religious institutions of the nation.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected the proposal outright stating that it “gave a green light to undermine national sovereignty and imagined that Egyptian authorities might submit and report to a foreign agency”.
Dar Al-Ifta, Egypt’s highest authority for delivering fatwas, also condemned the draft law, criticizing “interference in internal affairs of Egypt, that foments discord and discrimination” between Egyptians. The body, which is responsible for publishing directives relating to the good practice of Islam and ending controversies based on the application of precepts of the Koran, nevertheless noted that it was legitimate for Christians to build churches in an Islamic nation in compliance with local laws.
“It is a proposal of no interest and completely off the point,” commented Bishop Anba Makarios, the respected bishop of Al Minya, known for his pro-government positions.
“Where were you in 2013 when our Muslim brothers destroyed and burnt our churches?” asked Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Egypt.
In the aftermath, the Coptic Orthodox Church also insisted on the fact that the government had already accomplished its “complete duty in the reparation and renovation of the churches”.
Nevertheless, Mina Thabet, a researcher specializing in Christian minorities, questions this conclusion.
“According to the press, Egypt doesn’t need the United States because 90% of churches have already been rebuilt, which seems highly exaggerated to me,” she said.
In the view of Georges Fahmi, a research at the Middle East Directions European University Institute in Florence, “the Church wants to put a stop to the idea that it needs any kind of external aid or protection”.
“It has always been firm on these issues, particularly since it is regularly accused of being an agent of the West by Islamists,” he says.
“The problem comes from inside and it can only be dealt with internally by Egyptians,” insists Thabet.
“Egypt needs a concrete strategy to fight religious extremism and the violence that it involves. The American proposal will not achieve anything,” she argues.
“Rebuilding churches without aiming to ensure respect for religious freedom will do nothing. This kind of violence needs to be ended by education. The problem goes much deeper than rebuilding walls.”