Muslim village elders in Minia Governorate in Egypt have issued a death fatwa (ruling) against a Coptic priest Father Estefanos Shehata for requesting them to allow converting part of his family home to a prayer hall.
United Copts of Great Britain (UCGB) reported on Sunday that Father Estefanos Shehata had sent an urgent plea to Middle East Christian Association (MECA) on 14 August as the village elders issued a death fatwa (ruling) against him and has banned him from entering village Ezbet Dawood Youssef, which comes under Samalut, Minia Governorate.
He said that the village Muslim's reaction was absolute anger at his request to convert a space in his family's home to be used for conducting funeral services and for marriage ceremonies. "I know we are not allowed to have a proper church in Egypt, but until now I pray for the dead and hold marriage ceremonies in the street." Father Estefanos told Waguih Yacoub of MECA in an audio recording.
"I appeal to President Hosny Mubarak, Interior Minister, State Security and the human rights organizations, that we are Egyptian citizens and we have the right like everyone else to place our dead in a dignified place," said Rev. Estefanos.
He said that it took him nearly two years to prepare this 100 square meter room to be used for these rites, before approaching the state security for the necessary licenses to start using it.
"I went to the state security to get the necessary licenses for using this space in my family home, but they told me I need first to obtain the 'permission' of the village Muslims, as they (state security) want no problems in the village," said Father Estefanos. "I told them that there would be no problems in getting this permission as we have always had good relations with the village Muslims and we love and consider them as our brothers." Father Estefanos has been brought up in Ezbet Dawood Youssef.
When Reverend Stefanos told the villager Muslim elders what he was intending to do, they called for a meeting with the elders of the neighbouring villages. "They were extremely angry at my proposal and instead a death Fatwa was issued against me!"
"They told the Copts in the village to make me change my mind, and that it only takes a bullet to get rid of me since there is no 'blood money' for killing a Christian", Father Estephanos said. "I am banned from entering my village for over a month now, I cannot even go to see my mother," he said.
He said that he has not informed state security with this fatwa as they already know everything. "The Muslims understand very well that if the government requires their approval, so they are in a good position of being able to withhold it." he commented. "I would just like to know whether the Government governs the people, or the people govern the Government."
"I have not opened a church, it is only a hall. Were is the problem that I pray on the dead withing four walls; where is the problem that I conduct a wedding ceremony for a bride and bridegroom in a clean room, where is the crime in that?" Father Stefanos told MECA.
Commenting bitterly, he said: "Muslim said I have to give up using this hall for praying for the dead. Last year I conducted prayers for my deceased uncle in the street, and they know that very well. I pray in the street."
"Can't they see that as Egyptian citizens we have the right to show some respect to our dead and conduct pray on their bodies in a clean place instead of the street?" he asked.
"But I assume that if the state security gives them this authority, then they use it. I really am at a loss, who gives permissions now, is it the state security or the Muslim villagers?"
The village of Ezbet Dawood Youssef not far from the famed River Nile lies in Samalut, Minia Governorate and has a congregation of 800 Copts but no church. It has a big mosque and another one is in the process of being built.
"The Muslim elders also said that it is through a grace on their part that we are allowed to go to the neighbouring village to pray there." Rev. Estefanos explained that the next village is El-Tayebah which is a 5-kilometer walk away, and the children refuse to walk such a long way.
Egyptian Christians known as the Copts onumber about 12 million and are representing approximately 15 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million; yet, they have been neglected and marginalized and most commonly are targeted for systematic discrimination and persecution, according to a press statement made by U.S. Coptic Christians this week.
U.S. Coptic Christians in a letter sent to President Obama said Peace in the Middle East is inseparable to peace of Coptic Christians in Egypt ahead of President Mubarak's visit to the White House this week.
Yesterday, the Coptic panel, which included representatives from Voice of the Copts, National American Coptic Assembly, and Young People, held a press conference at National Press Club in Washington D.C. They decried Eyptian President over the grave human rights situation in the predominantly Muslim country and denounced his visit to the United States.
However, the letter sent by Coalition of Coptic Organizations to President Obama specially requested the U.S. President to speak to the Egyptian President to restore restore the human rights and give justice equally to all the citizens of Egypt.
UCGB said the question now which begs an answer: "Has the Muslim mobs taken over from the government when it comes to dealing with the Christian Copts' rights to exercise their religious rites, or is this a new policy on the part of the Egyptian State Security to delegate to the mobs the carrying out of their devious and illegal undertakings?"
The Coalition hopes that President Obama will do justice during his meeting with President Mubarak for the sake of the suffering Copts in Egypt.