Christians in Egypt still being attacked 'with impunity' despite new church law

A Coptic Christian priest blesses his congregation with holy water during Sunday service in the Virgin Mary Church at Samalout Diocese in Al-Our village, in Minya governorate, south of Cairo.Reuters

Egyptian authorities are "sending a message that Christians can be attacked with impunity" despite the passage of a new law that purportedly aims to protect churches.

The charge was made by Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, who said that despite the law, long-standing restrictions on church construction remain in place, The Christian Post reports.

"Many Egyptians hoped that governments would respect and protect freedom of religion, including for Christians, after the 2011 [Arab Spring] uprising," he said. "Instead, the authorities are ignoring the underlying systemic issues and sending a message that Christians can be attacked with impunity" since little is being done to guarantee that radicals who attack Christians will be punished, he added.

The law on Christian houses of worship, which Egypt's parliament passed on Aug. 30, has drawn conflicting interpretations.

To the Coptic Catholic Church, the law is good news, saying in a statement last week that at least it forces regional governors to provide a "justified decision," subject to appeal, if they refuse authorisation for new church-building projects.

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"There have been some criticisms, but the government has tried to resolve any problems, and we now have a law which meets modern needs," said Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church as quoted by the Catholic Herald.

The important thing, he said, is that the law "seeks to avoid sectarian enmities."

However, Human Rights Watch has a different view on the matter. It points out that although the Coptic Church has expressed support for the law, "other Coptic priests, activists, local human rights groups, and some Coptic members of parliament criticised the restrictions that continue to discriminate against Christians."

Moreover, the new law is not expected to resolve the status of hundreds of unlicensed Coptic churches, thus discriminating against believers, the human rights body added.

According to persecution watchdog groups, an increasing number of Christian families have been suffering from violent attacks from Islamic radicals. Last year, the homes of many of these Christian families were burned down by Muslim mobs who accused them of trying to build new churches.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of the persecution watchdog groups, says victims of such sectarian violence are not receiving any justice since the government is not lifting a finger against the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch says the new law fails to address the question on how it will address the "climate of impunity for violent crimes," noting that while authorities have made many arrests, offenders are rarely prosecuted.

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