Minya, Egypt, Jul 28 – On a recent Sunday in southern Egypt, dozens of Coptic Christians gathered for mass next to the charred remains of a wooden structure they once used as a chapel.
A priest and five white-clad deacons began chanting around a simple wooden altar as the sun beat down on the remains of the makeshift chapel, which was torched two months ago.
A blackened wood cross lay amid the rubble, a testament to a string of clashes in southern villages this month that has highlighted sectarian tensions in Egypt.
Further down the road in the village of Ismailiya, a building the congregation wanted to use for their church is closed for lack of a permit.
Egypt’s Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, have long struggled to obtain official permission to build churches.
They are now hoping a new law on building houses of worship — both mosques and churches — will curb discrimination against them.
But here in the rural southern province of Minya, even the rumour of Christians building a church can spark mob violence.
Copts have faced growing violence in recent years. Dozens have been killed in sectarian attacks across the country.
“My simplest right as an Egyptian should be to pray in a church, not the street,” said Nashat Saed, 31, who attended the service with his wife and three children.
“I feel oppression every time I come here to pray,” he said as sweat trickled down his face.
“I dream that we open a church where we can bring the women and children to pray, instead of the street.”
– Discrimination –
Egypt’s authorities often refuse to give Christians building permits for churches on the grounds that doing so would disturb the peace with their Muslim neighbours.
Coptic Pope Tawadros II has said he hopes the new law will streamline church construction and cut through the red tape.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the rights group Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said current laws are biased against Christians.
“There is discrimination in handling Muslim and Christian rights in building houses of worship. The conditions for building churches are a hindrance,” he said.
Egypt had 2,869 churches in 2011.
Nadia Henry, a member of parliament for the liberal Free Egyptians Party, said a new law could dampen sectarian tensions.
“Regulating church construction will bring down the number of sectarian clashes in Egypt,” she said.
However, the Copts, who make up some 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, are going through some of their darkest times in recent memory.
Copts have long been the target of sectarian attacks, but they surged during the three-decade rule of former president Hosni Mubarak.
A month before Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising in February 2011, a suicide bomber killed more than 20 churchgoers in the coastal city of Alexandria.
The violence multiplied after Mubarak’s ouster, with sectarian clashes in Cairo killing more than a dozen people.
Then in October that year, Copts who had been protesting a church arson clashed with the military outside state television headquarters.
More than 20 protesters were killed, some run over by armoured vehicles.
Three soldiers died in the clash. State television appealed to viewers to descend on the scene to “protect the military,” and aired a clip of a soldier calling the Christians “dogs”.
– Scapegoated –
A year later, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president.
His rule was marred by clashes between Christians and police following the funerals of victims of a sectarian clash. Police fired tear gas at the angry mourners outside the headquarters of the Coptic pope in Cairo.
When massive protests swamped Cairo’s streets demanding Morsi’s resignation in July 2013, leading to his overthrow by the military, his supporters singled out Christians for blame.
Leading Muslim clerics, as well as much of the secular opposition and the Coptic Orthodox Church, supported his ouster.
A month later, when police dispersed an Islamist protest camp in Cairo and killed hundreds of Morsi supporters, mobs responded by torching dozens of churches and Christian properties around the country.
The authorities have promised to clamp down on sectarianism.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who ousted Morsi, has said there would be no discrimination against any Egyptian.
But that hasn’t stopped the violence.
In May, a Muslim mob stripped an elderly woman of her clothes and attacked her house in a southern village after rumours that her son was dating a Muslim woman.
Coptic farmer Amir Mikhail, who hosts religious services in his small home in Ismailiya, said the government was not doing enough to protect Christians.
“The official message is great, but on the ground, nothing is implemented,” he said.