For decades, Coptic Christians in Egypt have accused the government of restricting the number and size of churches that can be built and of making it difficult to renovate or restore churches that already exist. As a result, the Copts were forced to set up places of worship in unsuitable or overcrowded buildings. This is the case of the Abu Sefein Church, which was an apartment building. After the fire, Tawadros II, the Coptic pope, said the church was too small to hold the number of members it served, and he called on the government to allow more churches to be built. Anba Angaelos, the Archbishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of London, tweeted that the Abu Sefein fire is “a direct result of a painful period when Christian communities could not build purpose-built churches and should secretly use other buildings, not fit for purpose and lacking necessary health and safety features and escapes.In 2016, el-Sisi removed some restrictions on building and renovating churches, but local governments still have the power to limit the building of churches.A US State Department report on religious freedom found in 2021 that church building in Egypt is “subject to greater governmental scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.
Copts, who make up 10% of Egypt’s total population, have long suffered violence and discrimination. In 2011, a mob of Muslims burned down several churches in Cairo, and Coptic churches were also targeted by terrorist attacks. Some observers accuse the government of restricting the construction of churches out of fear of these Muslim extremists, who believe that Christian churches undermine the “Islamic character” of the country. In this charged atmosphere, churches also serve as important community centers for Christians, providing refuge from violence or harassment.
When a church in Africa is attacked by Islamic militant groups like Boko Haram, it often makes international news. But there are other ways to make a religious minority feel unwelcome. “Copts are forced to live in the shadows and pray in silence,” said a Coptic Middle Eastern eye. In the days following the Abu Sefein tragedy, two more accidental fires broke out in two other Coptic churches. No deaths have been reported, but the danger remains. As one woman who lost two loved ones in the Abu Sefein fire lamented, “Nobody can believe that children went to pray and never came back.”