Muslims Surround Church in Egypt, Prevent Its Reopening
By Mary Abdelmassih
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(AINA) -- On the morning of May 19 two Coptic priests went to St. Mary and St. Abraham Church in Ain Shams and opened it together with some of the Coptic residents, but later in the day thousands of Muslims surrounded the church to protest its opening, hurled stones at the church building and the Copts, who responded by throwing stones. The army and the police stood there watching and did not intervene (video).

Unable to secure the church, the army and police closed it and arranged for a "reconciliation" meeting between the Coptic priest and the Salafi sheikhs. They also arrested eight Copts, one of them 13-years old, and three Muslims. They were all charged with rioting, violence and causing injury to citizens. Three Copts were also charged with having cartridges but no guns and one 15-year-old boy with possessing two knives. The 3 Muslims were charged with throwing stones at the army.

Father Filopateer Gameel, one of the organizers of the Maspero sit-in, said that during a meeting with the Minister of Interior he was told he cannot choose the churches to be reopened because it was all "planned with the Salafis and the security authorities so that when we go, there will be no problems." He confirmed the minister had himself suggested the names of the three churches to be reopened.

The "reconciliation" session was held in a tent by the Islamist imam Kerdassi, the main opponent of the reopening of the church, who also recently built a mosque facing the church. Next to the tent was another one hosting Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi sheikhs, among them the renowned Salafi sheikh Hassan and over 3000 guests all chanting "Islamic, Islamic."

The session lasted for 5-hour, and was attended by sheikhs, imams, priests, lawyers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which the Muslims insisted the church was a factory and the Christians explained that it was a church, although it has no dome or bell, and has been used as a place for worship and has a consecrated alter.

The Coptic diocese bought the building, which used to be a clothes factory, in 2004 and used it for worship until November 22, 2008, when it was closed by State Security after nearly 3000 Muslims surrounded the church, pelting it with stones and terrorizing thousands of parishioners inside.

"The atmosphere of the meeting was belligerent," said attorney Ashraf Edward, "and one of the sheikhs threatened us by saying that should the church be opened without their permission it would end up like the church in Soul which was demolished by Muslims." He said the church was offered a larger place to relocate to away from the Muslim families as the imams said. "They presented us with a petition from the Muslim families against the opening of the church."

The representative of the Ministry of Endowment suggested the church be closed until permission is granted for its opening from the relevant authorities, to which all sides agreed.

At the end of the session a joint statement was read by the Imam Kerdassi, which said "It was decided to close the place and no Christian prayers is to take place there until permission is granted. If there is permission then we should respect it and since there is no permit at present then all parties agreed to close the place permanently, no one to approach it and no one of us to harm it until the authorities have issued a ruling. We all have to love each other, so that Egypt would remain strong and secure as Allah wanted it to be."

The Muslims demanded that should the church be reopened, it should be without cross and dome.

Coptic attorney Dr. Ihab Ramzy said the army and the police did not participate in the "reconciliation" meeting. "This shows the government is ignoring the problem. Am I there to get the Salafis' permission to open the church? If they say no, does this mean I should not open the church?"

"The joint statement linked the opening of the church with the consent of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," said activist Mark Ebeid, "so the military council has to know that if the church is not opened, this means the dignity of the State has been lost in front of the Salafis. Everyone believes the government should have carried out its decision to open the church whatever the outcome. The big question now is will the government give us a written permission or not?"

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