Egypt: Christians attacked and homes burned by Muslim mob over rumoured church building

Christian homes and property have been attacked by a Muslim mob in Egypt over rumours a house under construction was being turned into a church.

A large group of Muslims gathered around the house, owned by Coptic Christian Naim Aziz, in Qarayat al Bayda village near Alexandria after Friday prayers on June 17, chanting: "By no means shall there be a church here".

"A great deal of fanatic Muslims gathered in front of the new house of my cousin, Naim Aziz, during its construction because of a rumour spread in the village that this building would be turned into a church," Christian resident Mousa Zarif told International Christian Concern (ICC).

Aziz told Daily News Egypt that he was in fact building the house for his son to live in, not for a church.

It is claimed the mob attacked the home, destroying the construction materials and also attacked Naim and his brother, leaving both men injured.

Christian homes and properties in the surrounding area were also reportedly attacked and looted, including a church community centre.

"They also intercepted the car of Fr Karas Naser, the priest of the Holy Virgin and the Archangel Michael Coptic Church when he arrived at the village," Zarif said.

"They attacked him but some moderate Muslims intervened, rescuing him from their hands and getting him out of the car."

When police arrived, they did not stop the destruction. They arrested six coptic Christians, including Aziz and his brother, along with six Muslims.

The six Muslims were freed shortly afterwards, while the Christians were released the next day on bail, having been charged with holding prayers without permission and building without a permit.

"We are concerned at the failure of the security services to ensure the safety of the Coptic Community and at the arrest of six Copts on spurious charges," said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

"This incident underscores the urgent constitutional requirement for the House of Representatives to issue a law regulating the construction and renovation of houses of worship in a manner that guarantees the right of Christians to worship in community with others."

The attack was filmed. A video showed a large crowd shouting "we don't want a church". It also showed the arrival of the police on the scene. Aziz told Copts Today that instead of protecting him and his property, they allowed the destruction to continue.

"The police and government authorities in Egypt cannot allow these attacks to go unpunished because the victims come from a minority faith. It is unspeakable that the victims of these attacks were charged with crimes while the perpetrators continue to enjoy total impunity," said William Stark, ICC's regional manager for South Asia.

"It continues to show how Christians in Egypt are treated like second class citizens We call on the Egyptian authorities to ensure that justice is served and that Christian communities like this be protected from further assault in Egypt."

Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 per cent of Egypt's population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Sectarian violence sometimes erupts over disputes on issues related to church building, religious conversions and interfaith relationships.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last month recommended that the US State Department add Egypt to its list of "countries of particular concern", where "particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetuated or tolerated".

Though the Egyptian government has taken "positive steps to address some religious freedom concerns" in the past year, there remains a "climate of impunity," the USCIRF said.