By Walid Shoebat
A controversial issue has erupted after a church closure in a village in Minya province, south of Cairo. The closure wasn’t enforced by Muslim mobs who failed in the past to break the Coptic resilience, this time around the closure was enforced by government security officials. And the problems of church closures are not only in Egypt, Syriac Christians living in southeastern Turkey are considering moving to Europe after their assets, including churches were seized by the Treasury.
Egypt has 2,626 churches scattered throughout the nation serving 15 million Coptic Christians. These days, Christians in the Minya Province in Egypt are going the way of the catacombs since they can’t freely use the churches to worship and are conducting their services in private homes.
In Egypt, 15 places of worship have been closed so far while seventy villages are not allowed to erect places of worship. Anba Makarios, Bishop of Minya Province exposed the government officials, a move that is unusual which could level reaction by government.
“The security services are continuing the closure of a Coptic church in the village of Kedwan in Minya,” said Anba Makarios, Bishop of Minya.
“We are trying to find any places to hold religious rites so as not to violate the Copts’ travel ban and to avoid possible dangers,” he said. The travel ban was due to killings of Copts who travel to worship outside their villages to other locations where churches are open.
“These places may be a hall, a house, or even a small room with poor ventilation. The right to worship is forbidden on the whims of some local officials. Most times it is like tracking the Copts to prevent them from praying. Other times, persecution comes by use of force against the people and the clerics.”
He added: “Although the Constitution of the State affirms the freedom of worship, and although the directions of the President [Al-Sisi] is to achieve justice and equality and the establishment of peace and stability in the pillars of the country, but unfortunately, the suffering is still the same, the approach is still the same approach, the mechanism is still the same mechanism.”
In Egypt, a church cannot open its doors once closed and neither can there be an establishment of a new church. You would never see a new church built with domes, lamps, crucifixes and bells.
In the village of Kedwan where the church was closed, there are no issues of crisis between Copts and Muslims, yet local authorities are pushing it.
Following the disbanding of the Muslim Brotherhood in August 2013, the church establishments in Minya suffered especially the most. The attacks took on houses and property belonging to Christians there.
The criticism of a church official the size of the Bishop of Minya security services in a public statement is rare since such an act is usually met with repercussions.
“The severity of the statement reflects the anger of the church because of the injustice imposed on the Copts, especially in Minya, where extremist currents are growing” said Church lawyer Ihab Ramzi. The suffering stems from the mismanagement of security leaders, where there is always someone who carries within it a grudge against the Copts.
In other words, laws that approve church building are not followed.
The copts of Egypt are feisty and the most resilient to persecution. Take for example the church in the village of Kedwan, which includes 1200 Christians was stormed in 2012 by extremists. This did not make them quit. Christians resorted to pray in the churches of neighboring villages with the help of the episcopate which was sending buses to transport Christians to these churches.
But after the dangers facing the Copts because of threats, dozens were killed during a trip to a monastery in the desert of Minya months ago. The Christians in the village of Kedwan then started to pray in their homes until one of them donated a room in order for Christians to gather and to observe their religious rites. This surprised the security services which prevented them from praying in this place. They evacuated the worshipers and asked the priest not to pray again, which raised the resentment of the Bishop of Minya.
“It is now clear that the Christians of Kedwan are not allowed to go to pray in a nearby church or to open their village church, nor to assemble in a room in the village to pray” said the Bishop.
And its the same issue in Turkey. Following the confiscation of their properties, many Syriacs, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, are temporarily returning to Europe to live together with their families and they are asking for a peaceful atmosphere to be ensured for these returns not to be permanent.
An Al-Monitor report said last month that around 50 properties belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church were seized by Turkish authorities who claimed that the ownership deeds had lapsed. Mor Gabriel monastery applied for an appeal, which was rejected by a special commission working on the liquidation of the assets.
The commission began last year to transfer assets which were considered invalid following a municipal reform. Dozens of houses of worship, cemeteries and other properties of the Syriac community were confiscated by state authorities.
Some of the assets, including churches in Mardin province that were owned by the Syriac community, were seized by the Treasury and were planned to be transferred to the Religious Affairs Directorate. While a special commission established under the Mardin Governor’s Office cancelled a decision to transfer Syriac churches and monasteries to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, the fate of assets remains unclear.
Syriacs living in Mardin are also concerned about the insecure political and economic situation and the Turkish government’s approach to different beliefs and cultures and fear for their lives.
Renate Sommer, a member of the European Parliament from the Christian Democratic Union, part of the European People’s Party, harshly criticized the decision of seizure and said the Syriacs were at risk of being wiped out in Turkey.
The Syriac community has a total of seven foundations in Turkey, most of which are located in Mardin. According to Turkish officials, there are approximately 25,000 Syriacs living in Turkey, 18,000 of whom are in İstanbul, with the rest scattered in eastern and southeastern provinces.
Approximately 3,000 Syriacs had migrated from Europe to Turkey in the 1980s.
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