An Egyptian military court on Sunday sentenced two Coptic Christians to five years in jail for violence and trying to turn a factory into an unlicensed church, judicial sources said.
The two men, also convicted of possessing weapons, were arrested on May 18 after clashes between Christians and Muslims in Cairo’s Ain Shams district as the Copts planned to hold prayers in the building.
A Coptic-led group that took part in a reconciliation meeting between the two sides says the two men are innocent and their lawyers will try to appeal the ruling.
Sameh Abdel Satar, a member of the Egypt Lovers and Peace Society, said the Coptic Church had obtained permission in January to convert the building, which it had purchased in 2006, into a church.
“The first prayer was meant to be held on January 30, but the revolution happened,” he said of mass protests that began on January 25 to overthrow president Hosni Mubarak.
The military prosecution said the building was registered as a garment factory and that the two men assaulted workers inside.
Copts, who held a sit-in earlier this month after Muslim mobs attacked to churches elsewhere in Cairo, said the government had promised to reopen closed churches, including the one in Ain Shams.
Since Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, the country has seen a spike in religious violence that killed at least two dozen people in March and May.
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 80-million people, complain of state sanctioned discrimination in the form of a law that requires them to obtain presidential permission before building churches.
The decision is delegated to governors, who consult security services on whether a proposed church would anger Muslim neighbours.
The caretaker government has said it will draft a law to ease restrictions on building churches.