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For Christians In Egypt, Building A New Church Can Set Off Violence


Next we have the story of a religious minority. Of the many religious minorities in the United States, Muslims have faced intense scrutiny in recent years. In majority-Muslim Egypt, one frequently scrutinized minority group are Christians. They face arguments over whether they can build churches and sometimes much worse. Last month, you may recall, a gunman opened fire on Christians, killing 29 people. NPR's Jane Arraf visited the province with Egypt's highest percentage of Christians.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm in a small house in the farming village of al-Our. Like a dozen families here, Izas Dawood has turned her living room into a shrine. Behind the flickering candles, next to pictures of her two smiling sons, she's hung the altar boy gowns they wore in the village church before they went to neighboring Libya to find work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

IZAS DAWOOD: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Samuel was 20, and Beshoy was 22. They're considered martyrs now. That's because they were among 20 young Egyptian workers beheaded by ISIS in Libya two years ago. To commemorate their deaths, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi gave permission for a huge new church on the road to al-Our. Building churches is so controversial here, it took an ISIS attack to get permission to build one.

The village is 70 percent Muslim. Some of the villagers protested and threw stones when construction started on the church. Churches are a sensitive subject throughout Egypt, even though about 10 percent of the population is Christian. It's hard to get permits to build them. In Minya, a poor province which has the biggest concentration of Christians, even talk of a church can be dangerous.

EBRAHIM FAHMY: (Through interpreter) They burned my house. They burned the house my brother was building and the houses of five other brothers. They thought we were going to open a church.

ARRAF: That's Ebrahim Fahmy. He's from the village of Kom al-Lufi. In April, just after suicide bombings at churches in Egypt killed 44 people, some of the Christians gathered in a house in the village to pray. A mob attacked them and set fire to buildings.

Fahmy is shaking with anger as he speaks in a church hall in the nearby town of Samalut. He says a year ago, his tailor shop and a factory were burned down. He says the crops have died because Christians haven't been allowed to work their fields.

At first, Kom al-Lufi seems like a typical, sleepy Egyptian town. Small concrete houses line narrow alleyways. Men riding donkeys meander past. You'd think it was an ordinary village, except there are armored vehicles full of police posted at the entrance. We're told there were fights recently between Christian and Muslim students after exams.

In the street, we meet Fawzi Abdul Sattar, a barber. His son Bakr, not yet 18, is in jail, charged with setting fire to four houses in the attack in April.

FAWZI ABDUL SATTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He says his son is innocent - that he and his friend Mahmoud were arrested after they were coming back from the mosque.

We go back to talk to the rest of the family, but the police come and order us to leave and delete the recording. They're worried Egypt will get a bad image. Before they do, Mahmoud's mother says there are a lot more Muslims than Christians here, so the Christians can go somewhere else to pray. She claims the Quran says churches are haram, religiously unclean. That's not true. But like many here, she can't read, so she only knows what people tell her.

In Samalut, the priest responsible for the region, Father Daud, says he's applied for a permit twice since 2006 to build a church in Kom al-Lufi. He's received promises from the Minya governor but no approval.

FATHER DAUD: (Through interpreter) He and security officials are all saying the Christians have a right to pray. He promised to allow us to build a church, and he will keep his promise. We have faith in God and in the governor.

ARRAF: Father Daud says Christians and Muslims get along well most of the time. But as soon as you mention a church, that's a different thing, he says.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, in Minya province, Egypt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.