CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities have shuttered three Coptic Christian churches in a southern province over fears of attacks by Muslim extremists, religious officials said Monday.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of more than 100 million, have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation, and say authorities have often failed to protect them from sectarian attacks.
The Minya Coptic Orthodox Diocese said authorities sealed off two churches in the southern province, citing harassment and attacks by extremists. A third was closed due to fear of attacks. The statement was issued late Saturday.
It said clashes broke out Friday when ultraconservative Muslims tried to attack one of the churches, adding that a Coptic woman was wounded. Later that day, the mob attacked Christian homes, the statement said.
"We have kept quiet for two weeks... but the situation has worsened. It seems as if prayer is a crime the Copts should be punished for," the statement said, referring to the repeated closure of the churches.
The diocese urged authorities to end discrimination against Christians and "not to succumb to the fundamentalists."
Minya Governor Essam Badawi denied the churches were closed for security reasons, saying they were "unlicensed houses" that lacked the documentation needed to "perform religious rites."
However, he confirmed there were two attacks on the houses of worship and that 15 people were arrested. He said police are searching for 11 other suspects.
He said 21 churches in Minya are still open for services.
Bishop Makarios, Minya's top Christian cleric, told The Associated Press that Christians had been worshipping at the three locations for years. He said the church has repeatedly requested official authorization in recent months, following new legislation on the construction of churches.
Local authorities often refuse to permit the construction of churches, fearing blowback from ultraconservative Muslims. That has led Christians to set up unauthorized houses of worship, which are sometimes attacked by Muslim mobs.
Last August, parliament passed a law that for the first time spelled out rules on building churches, a step many Christians had hoped would speed construction. But critics fear that only the restrictions will be implemented.
Makarios said the law was supposed to legalize unlicensed houses of worship, not provide an excuse for authorities to shut them down.