The Egyptian military has started rebuilding destroyed Christian churches and properties, years after the Muslim Brotherhood tore the buildings down.
On Christmas Eve, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi apologized to the nation’s Christian population and reiterated his pledge to rebuild the churches. He initially made the promise when he took office in 2013.
“In this occasion, I want to exhort you all, let no one come between us,” he declared. “Nothing can harm us, not our economic conditions or political conditions. Unless we diverge, we can overcome anything.”
He added: “We have taken too long to fix and renovate [churches] that were burned … This year everything will be fixed. Please accept our apologies for what happened … God willing … by next year there won’t be a single church or house that is not restored.”
The military began reconstructing the churches destroyed in August 2013 after the government removed protesters staging sit-ins for then-President Mohamed Morsi. Then-defense minister al-Sisi vowed to fix the churches.
Muslims joined efforts to raise money to build a new Coptic Church just north of Cairo in April. Coptic Orthodox Bishop Benyamin started a fund to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He asked his parishioners to reach people near and far to donate towards the church. Islamic leaders in the area heard about the fund and asked Muslims to also donate money.
“Most of our people are afraid,” explained Father Mina Adel, a priest at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria. “Not a few are leaving – for America, Canada and Australia. Dozens of families from this church alone are trying to go too.”
Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the country’s highest Muslim Sunni authority, and other Christian churches developed the Family House in 2011 after “the deadly 2011 bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria.” The group opened a specific donation account in October 2013 to raise money for the churches.
Safwat Al-Bayadi said the organization only raised “EGP 9 million and $8,000 since the initiative started, which is a very small amount of money in relation to the damages.” Some estimate the work will cost $25.5 million.
“I appreciate so much the president’s promise to continue the restoration process this year,” stated Bishop Macarius. “14 August 2013 marks the worst attacks in the Church’s modern history, as all Christian lives were threatened. They lost their properties in seconds, but thank God despite all the sectarian incidents and discrimination, Christianity in Egypt not only remains, but flourishes.”
In December, leaders of Egypt’s Coptic community attended a UN minority rights forum in Geneva, where they condemned the country’s blasphemy law. Medhat Kelada, head of the European Coptic Organizations Union, claims the law “badly exploited against the Copts.”
However, at the same time, the leaders praised Sisi for protecting them from the Muslim Brotherhood. Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II considers the president a “hero.”
But some believe the government will not completely change.
“Sisi is conservative. He doesn’t care about religious freedom,” said Mina Thabet, researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.