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By Raymond Ibrahim – Coptic Solidarity –

Egypt’s Christians are, once again, being “reconciled” to their inferior social status in Egypt.

Last month, in the days and weeks leading up to Easter, church-hating Muslims in at least two villages rose up against their Christian neighbors.  On April 23 in al-Fawakhir, a rumor that a church was being constructed prompted hundreds of fanaticized Muslims to riot and torch numerous Coptic homes—the blaze could be seen for miles.  Three days later, on April 26 — a Friday, when Muslims are wont to hear sermons riling them against “infidels” during mosque prayers and then rampage — fanatics of another village, al-Kom al-Ahmar, attacked its Christian minority for receiving a permit to construct an Evangelical church.

As there never was—and now probably never will be—a church in al-Fawakhir, the matter has ended there.  But because the Christians of al-Kom al-Ahmar still have a permit to build a church, the matter has not ended.

Enter “reconciliation sessions,” whereby leaders of the Coptic and Muslim communities of this or that village, are brought together by State Security behind closed doors in order to reach an “agreement” without resorting to the law (meaning, without the Christians pressing charges).  Such a “reconciliation” took place in al-Kom al-Ahmar on May 18, 2024. 

According to one Arabic-language report, the session “included speeches about unity, rejecting attacks on the other, words about the national fabric and love, and a confirmation that such events will not be repeated.”

After pointing out that several people had been arrested, pending investigation, the report adds that “the session touched on the importance of releasing everyone and emphasizing the right to build a church.”

In other words, the Christians are being buttered up into thinking that their permit will not be permanently revoked—so long as they show some “tolerance” and not press charges against their attackers.

Of course, once they do and the guilty parties are released, the chances that the permit will be resumed are slim at best.

For example, almost five years ago to the day of the attacks on al-Kom al-Ahmar, (again, around Easter), another reconciliation session was held on April 30, 2019 in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib, following a set of similar circumstances (Muslim mob attacks on Christians due to the presence of a church, which was subsequently closed down). As that five year old report explains:

Egypt’s 2016 Church Construction Law contains language which allows church legalization permits to be indefinitely delayed due to the threat of sectarian violence. Reconciliation sessions are often used to further restrict the rights of Christians to practice their faith.

This pattern of abuse has played out countless times in the modern era:   Christians in Egypt encounter numerous legal obstacles in order to open a church—none of which, naturally, apply to the building of mosques; desperate to worship freely, particularly on holy days such as Easter, they meet in private homes or unofficial churches; this enrages local Muslims, who resort to violence and rioting—often under the watchful eyes of the security apparatuses.

After the authorities achieve some semblance of peace, they gather the leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities together for these so-called “reconciliation sessions.”  During these closed-doors encounters, Christians are “politely” asked to make further concessions to outraged Muslims.

Copts are often treated to the “good cop/bad cop” routine.  Authorities (the “good cops”) tell Christian leaders things like, “Yes, we understand the situation and your innocence, but the only way to appease the rioters (the Muslim mob, the “bad cops”) is by closing down the church—just for now, you understand, until things calm down.” Or, “Yes, we understand you need a church, but as you can see, the situation is volatile right now, so, for the time being, maybe you can walk to the church in the next town ten miles away—you know, until things die down.”

Needless to say, things almost never “die down” or “return to normal.”  Churches rarely resume being legitimized on the pretext that they pose “security threats” (meaning their existence prompts Muslims to riot and rage).

If Christians dare rebuff the authorities’ offer to have a reconciliation session and instead demand their actual rights as citizens, the authorities smile and say “okay.”  But because many of the initial arrests they made usually consist of Christian youths who had tried to defend the unofficial church or private residence used as a church, the authorities tell the Christian leaders, “Just as you say so-and-so [Muslim] was involved, there are even more witnesses [Muslims] who insist your own [Christian] youths were the ones who began the rioting.  So, we can either arrest and prosecute them, or you can rethink our offer about having a reconciliation meeting.”

Under the circumstances, dejected Christians generally agree to the further mockery.  What alternative do they have?  They know if they refuse to play along their youth will, according to precedent, go to prison and be tortured.   For example, in one incident, wounded Christians who dared repel Muslim attackers were arrested and, despite serious injuries, held for seven hours and prevented from receiving medical attention.

This issue of reconciliation meetings is so prevalent and prevents Christians from receiving any justice that a 2009 book is entirely devoted to it.  According to a review of this Arabic language book, titled (in translation), Traditional Reconciliation Sessions and Copts: Where the Culprit Emerges Triumphant and the Victim is Crushed:

In some 100 pages the book reviews how the security apparatus in Egypt chooses to ‘reconcile’ the culprits and the victims in crimes where churches are burned; Coptic property and homes plundered, and Copts themselves assaulted, beaten and sometimes murdered; and when even monks are not spared. Even though it stands to reason that such cases should be seen in courts of law where the culprits would be handed fair sentences, this is almost never allowed to take place. And even in the few cases which managed to find their way into the courts, the culprits were never handed fair sentences since the police invariably fell short of providing any incriminating evidence against them.

The farcical scenario of reconciliation sessions has thus without fail dominated the scene where attacks against Copts are concerned, even though these sessions proved to be nothing but a severe retreat of civil rights.

Politically speaking, the authorities aim—through the reconciliation sessions—to secure a rosy façade of the ‘time-honoured[’] amicable relationships between Muslims and Copts’, implying that they live happily ever after. The heartbreaking outcome, however, is that the only winners in these sessions are the trouble mongers and fanatics who induce the attacks in the first place and who more often than not escape punishment and emerge victorious. The Coptic victims are left to lick their wounds.

Worse, not only are the victims denied any justice, but the aggressors are further emboldened to attack again. 

As Coptic Bishop Makarious of Minya once put it in the context of discussing how Coptic Christians were being attacked at the rate of every two or three days: 

As long as the attackers are never punished, and the armed forces are portrayed as doing their duty, this will just encourage others to continue the attacks, since, even if they are arrested, they will be quickly released.

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