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Coptic Christians Fight to Save Church From Being Destroyed in Egypt
By Samuel Smith

An Egyptian priest is calling on president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to protect his historic church from being demolished by a Muslim judge and his two sons who are trying to steal the land to build a shopping mall.

The U.S.-based Christian persecution monitoring agency International Christian Concern is reporting that the Greek Orthodox Church of Virgin Mary in Rashid City of the Beheira governorate continues to be victimized by attacks from a retired Muslim judge named Mohamed Mostafa Kamel Tirana and his two sons, who are also judges.

Since 2008, the family of judges have attempted numerous times to use their legal clout to take ownership of the church and its property. Although the church dates back to the 1840s, the judge maintains that the plot that the church sits on is his family's ancestral land.

According to ICC, the judge claimed that he bought the property from the orthodox church in 1990. However, it wasn't until 2008, when the Greek Orthodox Church gave the building to the Coptic Orthodox Church that the judge tried to file his alleged property purchase with the local real estate authority.

"After we received the church in January of 2008, the judge began to dispute with us, alleging that he bought the church from the Greek Orthodox community in 1990, and used his position as judge and registered its contract," the Coptic church's priest, Father Luka Asaad Awad, told ICC.

The church's lawyer, Mnchaoy Ghanim Gaber, finds it strange that anyone would wait nearly two decades to register a property with the real estate authority.

"If we suppose that this person bought the church in 1990, why didn't he register it after purchasing it directly?" Gaber asks. "Why [would] he wait 18 years after the purchase to register it?"

In response to the judge's attempt to file his alleged contract with the real estate authority, the church filed a lawsuit against the judge.

"His purpose of taking over the church is demolishing its building and rebuild[ing] big shopping malls on its land," Awad asserted.

Since the church has filed a lawsuit against the judge, the judge has, on many occasions, hired bulldozers, frontloaders and a gang of men to destroy the church.

In September 2008, the judge, his sons and other Muslims ascended on the church property with a bulldozer and destroyed the church's fence, attacked the church's security guard and destroyed parts of the church building, a church member told ICC.

Awad, another priest and Gaber then filed a police report. However, the case was dropped after the hired men lied to prosecutors.

"The thugs who were hired by the judge to demolish the church said to the prosecution during the investigation with them that [it was] Father Luka who asked them to demolish the church," Gaber explained. "The prosecution didn't take any legal action against the judge and his two sons and dropped the complaint, which we filed against them."

The judge took another stab at destroying the church in October 2012. Without a demolition

order, the men returned with a front loader and destroyed a large part of the church's altar.

After the priests' lawyer again asked the police to protect the church, the police took away the front loader but did not take any legal action against the judge or his sons.

Gaber explained that in 2013, the judge filed a lawsuit with a court in Alexandria asking permission to destroy the church, but the judge has not been granted permission.

"We resorted to the Islamic Research Complex regarding this dispute ... who said [that] it may not allow the demolition of churches and monasteries and may not permit changing the activity which the building was intended for and that the person who thinks to do that betrays God and his prophet," Gaber explained.

In August, the judge won a court ruling, which resulted in the church being fined 150,000 Egyptian pounds. Additionally, the judge used his position to win control of one of the shops adjacent to the church from its renter in another legal battle. In September, the judge then blew a hole through the shop so that he could enter the church and continue demolishing the church building. The lawyer and priests once again filed complaint against him.

The local police then assigned guards to protect the church. However, two days later the guards' orders were recanted by the prosecution.

With the local authorities continuing to be inconsistent in their protection of the church, Awad is now turning to the nation's most powerful man to protect his church.

"We beg president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to intervene and protect the church and stop the demolition of it," Awad said.

Although El-Sisi has called for a reformation of the country's persecutory Muslim extremist mindset in a speech given at the most prestigious Islamic learning center in the world, the 1000-year-old Al-Azhar University, little action has actually been taken to ensure that religious minority rights are being protected in Egypt.

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