In the coming days, construction will commence on a new church in Egypt dedicated to the martyred Coptic Christians beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya in February.
The new church, bearing the name “Church of the Libyan Martyrs,” will be built in the Minya Governorate, south of the capital, Cairo. The church will cost $1.3 million, half of which has already been raised.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi granted permission for the construction of the church last February after Islamic State militants murdered 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach.
According to Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, the construction is indicative of a slow but noticeable shift taking place in Egyptian culture as well as among state officials. The change comprises improving attitudes toward Christians, but also resistance to Islamic extremism.
Until now, Fr. Greiche said, the procedure involved in getting a church building permit was extremely complex, involving a series of authorizations and approvals, which have been streamlined in this case. The decision also indicates that the government wished to send a strong message against religious discrimination, he said.
Greiche says that there have also been timid attempts at exegesis of the Koran and Islamic texts, accompanied by a ban on women teachers wearing a burka in the classroom and struggles against fundamentalism and extremist sermons in mosques.
Last week, the president of the University of Cairo, Dr. Hossam Kamel, prohibited teachers from wearing the burka in the classroom. They may continue to wear it, if they choose, at home or on the street, but not during teaching time.
Egypt’s top Islamic school, Al-Azhar, followed suit by banning women from wearing the burka in all its affiliate schools after a leading cleric said the burka was only a “tradition” and not necessary in Islam.
With general elections in late October and a possible reform of the Constitution, some expect a greater presence and visibility of Christians in society and in national politics as a result. While a transformation of the mentality naturally takes time, Greiche said, the fact remains that Christians are far more accepted in Egyptian society now than in the past.
President al-Sisi has asked Christians for a greater commitment in politics, urging them to vote and to run for office, to ensure a Christian presence in Parliament.
The High Electoral Commission also decided that at the first stage of the elections on October 17, women wearing the full veil must show their faces if they want to cast their vote.
For some time, there has been a greater determination to limit fundamentalism and extremism in mosques. The priest spoke of a “greater secularism without renouncing the religious element.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.