Military helping to rebuild Christian holy sites in Egypt

From Assyrian International News Agency

By Sherry El Gergawi

After Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi apologized for not finishing the reconstruction work of Christian properties damaged in the aftermath of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi's ouster in 2013, the engineering unit of the Armed Forces immediately started cooperating with Coptic authorities to wrap up the pending renovations, religious Coptic figures said.

While visiting Cairo's St. Mark Cathedral on Christmas Eve, El-Sisi apologised to the country's Christians over the delay in the completion of renovations, which he says will be done by the end of 2016.

The Amir Tadros coptic Orthodox Church in Minya, some 250 km south of Cairo, was set ablaze on August 14, 2013

The Amir Tadros coptic Orthodox Church in Minya, some 250 km south of Cairo, was set ablaze on August 14, 2013

The churches undergoing renovation were attacked in August 2013 on the day of the dispersals of pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, with the ensuing hours seeing sectarian attacks against Christians in Upper Egypt, where the Coptic population is relatively large.

El-Sisi, who was defense minister at the time, immediately announced that the Armed Forces would pay the costs of renovating and rebuilding all churches damaged in the attacks, which lasted over 12 hours.

In October 2013, the Egyptian Family House called for an initiative to renovate the damaged houses of worship and opened a bank account to receive donations.

The Family House is an authority launched by Egypt's Al-Azhar -- the country's highest Muslim Sunni authority -- and all Egyptian churches immediately after the deadly 2011 bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, one of the most infamous attacks on churches in the country's modern history.

The Family House's mission is to unite Muslim and Christian Egyptians to ease sectarian strife.

Safwat El-Bayadi, the former head of Egypt's Evangelical Church and a member of the Family House, told Ahram Online that "unfortunately, we only received EGP 9 million and $8,000 since the initiative started, which is a very small amount of money in relation to the damages."

Restoration work sponsored by the Armed Forces will cost some EGP 200 million ($25.5 million).

"I appreciate so much the president's promise to continue the restoration process this year," said Bishop Macarius of Minya in a phone call with Ahram Online.

He also thanked "the Armed Forces for their effort in renovating the churches to return them to the way they were before the attacks, or even better, and also the efforts of the Muslims who protected churches from attacks and provided refuge for their Christian neighbors to save their lives."

"14 August 2013 marks the worst attacks in the Church's modern history, as all Christian lives were threatened," Macarius added.

"They lost their properties in seconds, but thank God despite all the sectarian incidents and discrimination, Christianity in Egypt not only remains, but flourishes."

Although Christians only make up roughly 10 percent of the Egypt's 90 million people, many Islamists blamed Copts for the massive, nationwide protests that preceded Morsi's ouster on 3 July 2013.

The attacks following the dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins targeted churches and Christian religious institutions, as well as Coptic-owned properties including six Christian schools, 60 houses, 85 shops, three hotels and 80 vehicles.

A number of Christians were also killed in the attacks.

According to a report issued by Coptic rights group Maspero Youth Union (MYU), supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Morsi hails, destroyed and set fire to around 65 Churches. Some these churches, according to the report, dated as far back as the fourth century.

Bishop Pimen of Upper Egypt's Naqada and Qus villages, who is also the head of the crisis committee of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said the engineering unit of the Armed Forces has set a three-stage plan to renovate and rebuild the churches, monasteries and other institutions.

"The first stage, which included 20 churches with renovations costing EGP 70 ($8.9) million, and the second stage, which included 21 churches costing EGP 9.5 ($1.2) million, are already finished," he said. "Now we are working on the third stage, which includes 24 churches at a cost range of EGP 118-125 ($15-16) million."

"There are criteria in choosing the churches for each stage based on the security conditions and the level of damages," Pimen added. "The first stage included completely devastated churches that needed a lot of work. This has led to the delay of the second stage, which included less damaged churches."

Evangelical pastor Refaat Fekry told Ahram Online that the number of Evangelical churches damaged in the attacks was less than Orthodox churches.

"In the first and second stages, the armed forces restored four churches," he said. "We now have three churches and a church-owned boat to be restored in the third stage."

Father Botros Danial, president of the Egyptian Catholic Cinema Centre, said "two churches and a school have already been rebuilt, and we still need to restore two other churches in the third stage."

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