By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Dozens of Muslims and Copts chanted slogans of national unity as Prime Minister Essam Sharaf reopened the Virgin Church in Cairo’s Imbaba district on Tuesday after its renovation.
The government of Giza paid an estimated LE 6.5 million to renovate the church, according to a statement published on the Cabinet’s Facebook page early Wednesday.
On May 7, violent clashes erupted after Salafis surrounded the Virgin Church demanding the handover of a woman who was allegedly held against her will by the church after converting to Islam to marry a Muslim.
The woman, Abeer Fakhry claimed she was married to an abusive Coptic husband. Fifteen people were killed and more than 200 injured during the clashes.
Egypt’s public prosecutor referred 48 Muslims and Christians to the criminal court for their roles in the sectarian violence that led to the burning of the church. The trial is scheduled to begin on July 3.
Sharaf was accompanied by Minister of Interior Mansour El-Essawy, Minister of Local Development Mohsen El-Numani and Giza Governor Ali Abdel Rahman.
Sharaf said that the renovation of the church was an important event for both Muslims and Copts. This event, he continued, demonstrated the tolerance and unity that has existed between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts for more than 14 centuries.
He added that the state would fight any attempts to jeopardize national unity, saying that the main responsibility of the national justice committee was to protect national unity and stand against any attempt to ignite sectarian strife.
The committee was established on May 11 to fight sectarian strife, in a bid to ease tension following the Imbaba clashes.
Bishop Ciodeus of Giza welcomed Sharaf and awarded him along with El-Essawy and El-Noamani with plaques representing the Copts’ love and loyalty towards Sharaf, according to MENA.
Ciodeus highlighted the strength of relations between Egypt’s Copts and Muslims which is reiterated by Egypt’s Coptic church Pope Shenouda III in every opportunity.
Emad Rayyan, member of the Coptic coalition for Maspero Youth, said that the coalition welcomed the cabinet and the army’s efforts to meet the Copts’ demands including reopening the churches and releasing Coptic protesters.
“We hope they will meet the rest of our demands and swiftly reopen the rest of the churches,” Rayyan told Daily News Egypt.
Rayyan added that he personally believes it was the government’s duty to rebuild the church.
Father Filopateer Gamil, who participated in a 12-day sit-in in front of the State TV building following the Imbaba clashes, downplayed the significance of the event. He said that the celebration and propaganda that accompanied it was uncalled for.
“The interior minister and his police forces would’ve been more useful if they were present when the Virgin Church was being torched,” Gamil told DNE.
“It would’ve been better if [Sharaf] reopened the Bishop Abram Church in Ain Shams district because there were several problems related to it,” he added.
On May 19, police forces attempting to reopen the Bishop Abram Church were impeded by Salafis.
Security officials told AFP several hundred Muslims and Coptic Christians pelted each other with stones after hardline Islamists showed up at the Ain Shams church to object to its reopening. Security was later restored. The church hasn’t been reopened yet.
An Egyptian Muslim woman holds a cross with a Koran, Islam’s holy book, as she joins Coptic Christians for Sunday mass at the Virgin Mary church in the Imbaba district of the Egyptian capital of Cairo on June 5, 2011 following the church’s restoration after it was burnt during clashes between Muslims and Christians. (AFP Photo / Khaled Desouki)