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The Monastery of Abu Fana

Attempts to resolve the problems at the monastery of Abu Fana near Malawi in Minya province, where the monks have been subject to repeated attacks (see Glastonbury Review No. 116) have left many believing that the Coptic Church’s willingness to reach a compromise for the sake of communal harmony has resulted in a less than just settlement.

In July 2008 Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, head of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), chaired a meeting to discuss the final report of a fact-finding commission sent in mid-June to investigate only one of these incidents. The NCHR delegation, which was formed of Wafd Party Secretary-General Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, former Press Syndicate chairman Galal Aref and counsellor Samia El-Motayam, all members of the NCHR, met with all concerned parties. The report found that extremist groups on both sides of the confessional divide (Muslims and Christians) had exploited the problems and subsequent tensions. The report called for the punishment of instigators and perpetrators, regardless of other considerations and in accordance to law and stressed that both state and society must take action to confront emerging sectarian tensions and related problems that cannot easily be solved through reconciliatory meetings or security solutions that have previously failed.

The report recommended that the government work on addressing the root cause of such incidents instead of only reacting to and panicking about the spectre of sectarianism. The government must speed up the issuance of a unified law covering the building of houses of worship in the hope of avoiding a repeat of such clashes as those at Abu Fana, the report said.

Bishop Morcos of Shubra Al-Kheima, the Coptic Church media spokesman, repudiated the report, blaming the government for neglecting the Coptic community. Morcos refutes the NCHR report finding that the Abu Fana clash was centred on a dispute over land, saying, “if it was an ordinary dispute, then why didn’t the Arabs resort to the courts? Why did they kidnap the monks? Why did they torture the monks to force them to renounce their religion? Of course, it is related to religion.” Abdel-Nour complained that “Most Copts and monks are overreacting” and suggested that the monks’ tone was unacceptably frenetic.

The impartiality of Governor Ahmed Dia Eldin has been called into question ever since he publicly declared that the attacks were not sectarian, in an effort to downplay the incident. His assertion that the incident was “an ordinary quarrel over disputed land between neighbours,” and that “fire was exchanged on both sides.” Have been strenuously denied  by Church leaders who asserted that ‘no monks ever keep weapons.” The Egyptian government still insist until today on this version of the Governor’s story,

A decision by an arbitration committee, headed by the Governor and which also included Minya MP Alaa Hassanein, Mallawi businessman Eid Labib, representatives of the monastery and of the Bedouin Arabs involved in the dispute, which has the force of law, was that the construction of a wall surrounding the monastery be resumed amid tightened security measures. The committee recommended that any wall surrounding the monastery include only the original archaeological site, while a second wall will be built around Christian tombs close to the monastery. “A gate will be built, to be supervised by the monastery,” stated the Governor. Effectively this left the monastery in control of the northwestern areas while the Arabs will have rights to the eastern and northern areas, effectively confiscating most of the land cultivated by the monks. The Governor also asserted that the Abu Fana monks cultivated the land “without government consent. They now want to claim ownership. The land, though, belongs to the government, not to the monks or the Bedouin.” The monks were obliged to relinquish 95 feddans (25 of cultivated land within the grounds of the Abu Fana Monastery and 70 of fallow land in the vicinity of the monastery), thus reducing their holdings from 2,000 feddans to 500.

However, Pope Shenouda rejected the conclusions of the report, “What happened was not a dispute over a plot of land. It was, rather, a serious crime that happened for the first time in Egyptian Copts’ modern history. Some monks were kidnapped and brutally tortured. They were beaten up and their bones were broken, after the kidnappers asked them to renounce their religion and profane their sacred places.” His Holiness was also critical of the reconciliation meetings arranged whenever such incidents happened as they “are unfair for Copts and have no effective results.” No sooner had these meetings taken place; the criminals break their pledges and attack property of monasteries and innocent monks. The failure to prosecute the criminals merely encouraged them “to commit more crimes against Copts because they simply are sure that no one will bring them to account and that they will not pay the price for their crimes.” The matter was not acceptable either for Muslims or Christians who are concerned with the rule of law and preserving the state’s prestige.

Meanwhile two Copts, Refaat Abdo and his brother Ibrahim Abdo, who work as local building contractors, have been falsely accused of having murdered one of the Arab Muslim attackers on the Abu Fana Monastery last May and who were imprisoned and tortured, were sent to the New Valley detention camp on the Sudanese  border. Although the two men were bailed in November pending their court case, they were never released from prison. In May 2009 a court ruling ruled in their favour for the third time but the Minya State Security Services issued a new detention order to circumvent the court’s rulings, and the brothers were transferred back yesterday for the third consecutive time, to the New Valley detention camp. They were awaiting the implementation of the Court verdict to release them at the Minya prison.

Their defense lawyer claimed that the security police had already subjected the two men to electric shocks for 8-hours daily over a period of three days, in order to extract from them a false testimony against the monks that they were in possession of weapons which they used during the attacks in May. The younger brother Ibrahim also lost his teeth as a result of continuous hitting on his face by the interrogators. In spite of the continuous torture, the two men had refusing to testify falsely against the innocent monks.

The forensic report confirmed that the shot which killed the victim came from the back of the left shoulder and exited from his left nipple, while the contractor at the time was driving a tractor and coming from the opposite direction. His brother was miles away at the time. In addition, the gun which shot the deadly bullet came from one belonging to Abdullah, the son of Sheikh Samir Abu Louly, the main suspect in instigating the attacks on the Monastery.

All the Arabs who were involved in the attack and who were facing multiple criminal charges of kidnap and torture of three monks, attacking the monastery and causing damage to the Church and other property, were released without any charges at all.

The Case of Father Mattaos Wahba

Father Mattaos Abbas Wahba, is the priest of Archangel Michael Church at Kerdasa, Giza, Egypt. He was arrested, charged and tried for aiding and abetting a young Muslim woman to obtain a falsified  ID card, which gave her religion as Christian rather than Muslim. The ID card was said to enable her to marry a Christian man and to flee the country. On October, 2008, a court found him guilty and sentenced him to five years hard labour in Cairo’s Tora prison.

The young woman, named Reham Abdel Aziz Rady, was born to a Muslim family. She converted to Christianity, as a result of which she underwent considerable harassment from her family as well as Egypt’s Secret Police. She was subsequently released from custody without an ID card, without which she is unable to obtain employment, rent property, apply for a passport or a marriage license. Under Egyptian law a Muslim cannot marry a Christian.

To circumvent this inequality, in 2004 friends of  Reham provided her with an ID card belonging to a recently deceased young Christian woman of approximately the same age, named Mariam Nabil. Having assumed her new identity Reham, now called Mariam, decided to marry Ayman, a Coptic Christian. The service was performed by Fr. Mattaos in total ignorance of the falsified ID card used by Reham. Having left the country “Mariam” appeared with Brother Rasheed on the popular Arabic Al Hayat TV programme on April 24, 2009.  She testified, “Father Mattaos did not have any role in getting my ID card. I did not know him then, as this took place in 2004 and I got married in 2006.” Mariam added, “I have the right to have an ID card that reflects my true religious affiliation.

In May 2009 human rights groups, including the Egyptian Union  for Human Rights Organization and the International Coptic Council presented a petition calling for the release of Father Matteos to the Egyptian Prosecuter General (Abdel Migeed Mahmoud) as well as the President of the Court of Cassation and the Chief of the Judicial Council

The Struggle over Egyptian Identity Cards

In August 2008, following the failed Higazi case,  56-year-old Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, who has been a practicing Christianity for some thirty-four years,  filed a case at the State Council Court to replace the word “Muslim” on his identification card with “Christian.” The Administrative Court judge in the Higazi case had based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. According to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief , such as Christianity or Judaism.

El-Gohary’s lawyers contended “This is against all the international conventions as well as the constitution and Islamic law, which guarantee the freedom of belief” and said that if his client could not claim his rights in Egypt, he was determined to take the case to the U.N. International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. “No human has the right to choose the religion for someone else or to force him to embrace it, and no court has the right to order different religions in degrees”

El-Gohary accepted Christianity as a young man in his early twenties after becoming curious about the Bible. Through reading, he was convinced that the New Testament said the truth about Jesus. His family opposed his choice of faith and repeatedly pressured him to come back to Islam.

Compass Direct reported that El-Gohary had raised his 14-year-old daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, as a Christian, and she has also embraced Christianity. When she turns 16 she must be issued an identity card designating her faith as Muslim unless her father can win this case on her behalf. At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt’s Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.

Riots in Tayyiba

The ease with which inter-communal  incidents can break out was demonstrated by events in the village of Tayyiba, a town 137 miles south of Cairo with a population of 35,000 Christians and some 10,000 Muslims. In November 2008 two fourteen year old Copts, Mina William and his friend Nathan Yaccoub, failed to observe the usual mark of respect by dismounting from their donkey as a Muslim funeral procession passed. For his neglect, they were dragged off the donkey and beaten up by some in the procession.

The situation then quickly escalated with the processional members throwing stones at the homes of local Copts and attacking and looting their shops before police broke up the crowd with tear gas. Police numbers increased significantly but it was felt that rather than quell the unrest, they showed a bias against the Copts by detaining some 50 Copts and 10 Muslims. In the aftermath of the many Copts were harassed through intimidation, “fines” and racketeering. Coptic community leaders accused the police of have exacted an estimated $50,000 local Copts. Looting of grocery stores, a poultry shop, an electronics store and a pharmacy was attributed to “supply inspectors,” local government inspectors who undertake quality control checks on goods, who gained access by smashing locks and doors of the shops.

Coptic Orphanage bulldozed

On 19 November 2008 city officials in Lumbroso, Alexandria, destroyed an unfinished but recently furnished Coptic orphanage owned by Abu-Seifein Church and worth six million Egyptian pounds (US$1 million).

Officials justified their actions by the usual claim that the building did not have a license, but this was untrue. although church leaders said the demolition came on orders from the religiously zealous Islamic mayor. In his two years in office, the current mayor of Alexandria, Ali Labib, a former head of police and state security in Alexandria, has shown hostility towards Christians by refusing all license applications for new church construction or rebuilding, although the license had been granted by his predecessor.

Muslim Intimidation Closes Church

In a Sunday evening in November thousands of Muslim protestors attacked a Coptic church, burning part of it, a nearby shop and two cars and leaving five people injured.

They were objecting to a newly constructed extension to the Coptic church of St. Mary and Anba Abraam in the Cairo suburb of Ain Shams. A huge crowd of angry protestors (estimated by some to number 8,000) gathered outside the church following a consecration service for the addition earlier that day. They were chanting threatening slogans such as, “We will demolish the church,” “Islam is the solution,” “No God but Allah,” ‘We will bring the church down,’, ‘The priest is dead’ and ‘The army of Muhammad is coming.’”

The police were slow to arrive were unprepared for the scale of the protest. Rioters’ stones broke the structure’s windows, and a nearby shop and two cars belonging to Christians were set on fire. Reinforcements in the form of armoured vehicles and riot police did not arrive until two hours later, when they needed to employ tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. They were then engaged in clashes with the mob until the early hours the next morning. Around midnight the police started arresting people, but of the 38 Muslims arrested, 30 were quickly released “under the pretext of being minors.” However, three Christians who were arrested, remained in prison without charges. Security sources said eight people were injured, while eyewitnesses told reporters at least dozens were hurt.

H.H. Pope Shenouda ordered that prayers at the church should be stopped and the church closed for three months while officials consider its future.

The newly constructed extension stands on the site of an old factory that was demolished eighteen months ago, when the land was purchased using funds raised by donations from the congregation.

Church leaders had obtained the necessary permits for building the extension, but the protestors claimed that the addition was not licensed for prayer and worship. When building began, church members were surprised to find that construction of a mosque also started just across the street. During construction of the church addition, Muslim radicals insulted and harassed workers, issuing death threats and urinating on the structure’s walls. On the morning of the consecration service, the adjacent mosque began broadcasting verses from the Quran at high volume.

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