Egyptian priest faced with death fatwa after prayer hall request

Muslim village elders in Minia Governorate in Egypt have issued a death fatwa against a Coptic priest after he sought permission to convert part of his family home into a prayer hall.

According to the United Copts of Great Britain (UCGB), Father Estefanos Shehata was also banned for one month from entering his home village of Ezbet Dawood Youssef in Minia Governate.

Father Estefanos told the Middle East Christian Association (MECA) that the Muslim elders had reacted angrily to his request for the prayer hall, which he had wanted to use to conduct funeral services and marriage ceremonies.

Buildings must receive special licenses from the Egyptian government before they can be used for religious purposes, something Coptic Christians have traditionally struggled to obtain.

Although Ezbet Dawood Youssef is home to around 800 Coptic Christians, they are yet to receive permission for their own church despite the village already having one mosque and constructing a second.

Father Estefanos said that until now, he had been conducting funerals and marriages in the street. He had spent nearly two years preparing a room in his home to be used for such rites before applying for the necessary licenses.

“I went to the state security to get the necessary licenses for using this space in my family home, but they told me I need first to obtain the ‘permission’ of the village Muslims, as they want no problems in the village,” he said.

“I told them that there would be no problems in getting this permission as we have always had good relations with the village Muslims and we love and consider them as our brothers.”

The Muslim elders, however, called a meeting with elders of the neighbouring villagers and issued the death fatwa against him.

“They told the Copts in the village to make me change my mind, and that it only takes a bullet to get rid of me since there is no ‘blood money’ for killing a Christian,” Father Estephanos said.

He appealed to Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak to intervene and grant Coptic Christians the right to their own places of worship and burial.

“Can’t they see that as Egyptian citizens we have the right to show some respect to our dead and conduct pray on their bodies in a clean place instead of the street?” he said.

“The Muslims understand very well that the government requires their approval, so they are in a good position of being able to withhold it.

“I would just like to know whether the government governs the people, or the people govern the government.”

Coptic Christians number around 12 million in Egypt – 15 per cent of the country’s population.

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