City Life Cairo: Egypt's Copts go through hell to build a church

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The Independent Online
AT THE al-Moallaqa church on a sidestreet in one of the oldest quarters of Cairo, the workmen are busy, their toil obscured by clouds of dust. The labourers have been occupied for some weeks now, restoring not only the stonework but also the painted icons and the 13 slender columns - representing Jesus and his 12 disciples - that support a pulpit in the dark interior.

Everything at al-Moallaqa - better known as the Hanging Church - has an air of industry and purpose. The church, probably the oldest in the city, dates from the 4th century, but there is a real sense of things moving forward.

To casual visitors all this work probably appears nothing remarkable, nothing more than a common-sense approach for dealing with an historic site that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. But the restoration work is just the most obvious sign of an ongoing battle between the authorities and Egypt's biggest minority group - the country's 12 million Coptic Christians.

For generations the Copts of Egypt - one of the world's most ancient Christian sects - claim, with apparently good reason, to have suffered at the hands of the Muslim majority. While Egypt may have escaped some of the extremism that has affected other parts of the Middle East, Copts have been a disadvantaged group in terms of access to jobs, opportunities and housing.

In the early Nineties, a rise in Islamic extremism, particularly in parts of Upper Egypt in towns susch as Assyut, led to a wave of killings of Copts. Even in Cairo, Coptic communities and their churches were attacked by extremists.

But Copts have suffered a more subtle form of discrimination through legislation that refuses them the right to build or repair churches without the permission of senior government officials. "We want to be sure we do not give any Christian or Muslim extremist the chance to exploit the situation," said President Hosni Mubarak, defending this legislation in June 1997.

In a room close to the church, a Coptic priest said the situation for the Copts was still extremely delicate. He spoke of a court order being required to obtain a restoration grant from the government before the work could go ahead, and of a threat from the US Congress to impose sanctions against countries practising religious discrimination. His inference was clear - thegovernment was allowing this restoration only because it had no choice - and yet he was slow to voice criticism.

"In Upper Egypt there are still problems," he said, "but not in Cairo." But what about the recent closure of nearby churches because of attacks from Muslims? The priest looked embarrassed. "They are open again," he said. "There is nothing to worry you."

Throughout Egypt the Copts - led by their Pope, His Highness Shenouda III - have chosen silence as their best chance of survival, deciding that speaking out will only add to their problems. But one man, an assistant to the nameless priest, agreed to speak more openly, on the same condition of anonymity. "This is not England, people do not say as much here," he said. "The situation is better but at best [as a Copt] you cannot feel secure."

As he spoke a young couple came in to speak to the priest. Gathering his robes, the Father stood to join them.

"We have to pass through hell to build a church," continued the assistant. "It's part of the Islamic way of thinking - there is no freedom."

When the priest returned to his seat he explained that the couple were Muslims, and that the young woman "had problems. They came to speak to me, to ask for my help," he said.

The assistant added: "It's not unusual. Sometimes they will come into the church and pray. Sometimes they will hug the cross." The anecdotes may have been true, they may have been propaganda. Either way the priest tried to be optimistic about the future. "We pray to God to keep all the Christians in all of Egypt for ever."

Back at the church the workmen continued without a break. There was the noise of hammering and banging and more clouds of dust. Above the din there was the sound of a choir practising.

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