Egyptian court hands down one-year suspended sentence to 15 Muslims over church attack in Cairo

(Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)Security forces stand guard at the site of attack on a church in the Helwan district south of Cairo, Egypt December 29, 2017.

An Egyptian court has handed down a one-year suspended sentence to 15 Muslims who were charged for attacking a Coptic church in a village south of Cairo in December.

The defendants were among dozens of Muslims who attacked an unlicensed Coptic church on Dec. 22 after Friday prayers, breaking everything inside and assaulting some of the worshippers before they were dispersed by security forces.

According to Reuters, the court also fined the Christian owner of the building 360,000 Egyptian pounds ($20,500) for turning his residency into a church without a license.

The defendants were each fined 500 Egyptian pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity and vandalizing private property, but they will not be serving prison time unless they are involved in another incident.

The church has yet to be sanctioned by the state but prayers have been held in the building for 15 years.

The Archdiocese of Atfih said that it had sought to legalize the church, following the passage of a 2016 law that laid down the rules for building new churches.

Local authorities often refuse to issue building permits for new churches, fearing a backlash from Muslim conservatives. As a result, Christians often build churches illegally or set up churches in other buildings.

World Watch Monitor noted that the cabinet committee that worked on the legislation on the construction of new churches had received as many as 2,650 requests from Coptic parishes awaiting permits or license to renovate or build.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Housing announced that Christians will be allowed to attend services in unlicensed churches while their registration applications are being processed.

Egypt's Coptic Christian population of 10 to 15 million have long complained of discrimination in the majority-Muslim country and have increasingly been targeted in terror attacks in recent years.

Christians have also accused the government of not doing enough to protect them and to support victims of terror attacks.

The country has been under a state of emergency since April, following the Palm Sunday bombings of two Coptic Christians churches, which resulted in the deaths of 47 worshippers.

In December 2016, at least 29 people were killed in an attack at the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo.

At least nine people were killed on Dec. 29 last year after a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire outside a church in a Cairo suburb and at a nearby store.

Last month, the government stepped up security around churches during the Coptic Christmas celebrations, which took place on Jan. 7. As many as 230,000 security forces were reportedly tasked with protecting Egypt's 2,626 churches, along with the country's public parks, state institutions and tourist sites.

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