Cairo (AsiaNews) – An Egyptian court sentenced 69 Islamists to life in prison for setting fire to the Coptic Church of the Virgin Mary in Kerdasa in 2013. Two underage defendants were sentenced to ten years each for the same crime.
"This is the first time that someone is convicted" for destroying a Christian building, said Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt. It is a sign that "Christians are not second-class citizens" in a country that is 90 per cent Muslim.
The church in question is located in Kerdasa, a Cairo suburb, not far from the pyramids. It was torched overnight on 14-15 August 2013.
Violence broke out in Kerdasa and all over Egypt after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted (3 July), and the Muslim Brotherhood held rallies in Nahda Square and Rabaa El Adaweya (August 14).
About 60 churches, Christian institutions, homes and shops were attacked; 13 police officers were killed, along with dozens of Islamists.
Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata, who issued the ruling, convicted 183 Islamists last February for killing 13 police officers in Kerdasa.
"This," said Fr Greiche, "is the first time that a prison sentence was handed down for a church burning. On other occasions, people were convicted of burning a church in connection with other crimes. This time, the sentence was imposed only for burning a church."
For the clergyman, "This is an important verdict because it shows that Christians are not second-class citizens; that churches are not second-class buildings, but have the dignity of all other sacred buildings; that the Church is an institution to be respected like any other".
Likewise, "It is also a sign of the independence of the judiciary, of judges' freedom before public opinion, that they are not politicised."
However, Egypt's media have underplayed the verdict, with brief reporting in local news sections. TV talk shows have been silent in the matter.
The reason for this is that "Right now, the media are closely covering President Sisi's visit to Cyprus and Spain," Fr Greiche said. "Another reason is that people want to forget the terrible violence and those days of terror."