STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On a recent visit to Egypt, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured a towering new cathedral. He praised the authoritarian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for supporting Egypt's Christian minority. But that is not the whole story in this majority Muslim nation. In some parts of Egypt, the government will not grant permits for churches. And tens of thousands of worshippers are left to pray in the street. NPR's Jane Arraf reports.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Foreign language spoken).
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning, and the Mar Gerges church in the town of Tayeba is almost full. It's a Coptic Orthodox service - three hours long. Children dart in and out. There are stained glass windows casting rainbow-colored light on the worshippers. Men are on one side, the women on the other. Most of the men wear galabayas - the long robes of the countryside. Their hands, raised in prayer, are weathered from working in the fields. A lot of the families in the battered, wooden pews have come from surrounding towns and villages, where their churches are closed.
SAMIRA SALEH: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: Samira Saleh has come to baptize her son Mina. He's four months old. The church in her own village of Smedah was built 13 years ago. But government authorities have prevented it from opening.
SALEH: (Through interpreter) Our church is small, but they refuse to let us pray. The children know nothing about our religion. We have sick, elderly people who can't travel this distance. There isn't always transportation. And when there is, we don't always have money to pay for it.
ARRAF: Her village isn't so far from here - about three miles. But these are poor people. Even the dollar-or-so cost for transportation is normally beyond them.
SALEH: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: Saleh says when her father passed away last year at the age of 79, they held the funeral in the street. For years, he had been too ill to travel to the church in Tayeba for communion. Malak Mosaad, an inspector with the education ministry, says when he got married, the ceremony was in the street.
MALAK MOSAAD: (Through interpreter) There was no other choice. There was no transportation, so the priest came. We were in the street. We brought a sofa there, and we sat on it.
ARRAF: Almost a third of Smedah's population of 3,000 is Christian. They say young men in the village have a hard time finding women to marry because families don't want their daughters to live somewhere with no church. Kamal Assad is a junior high school teacher here. He says they're happy President Sisi had a big, new cathedral built in the capital. In the cities, Christians are generally free to practice their religion. But poor Christians in rural Minya can't afford to go there.
KAMAL ASSAD: It is good. But - (through interpreter) but how does that benefit those of us living in poverty? Are we going to go and pray in it?
ARRAF: In fact, Christians in Minya don't blame Sisi for the lack of churches. They say it's officials under him who are caving into Muslim extremists in the villages. But they note that when Sisi does order churches to be built, they're built immediately. With the church service over, it's time for the group from Smedah to go home. The children are lifted into the back of a rented pickup truck. Saleh's neighbor holds four-month-old Mina. The baby's name means prince. And wearing a huge, ornate, white cap with a cross embroidered in gold on it - today, at least, he looks like a prince. Here in Upper Egypt along the Nile is where some of the first civilizations began. Coptic Christians believe they're descended from the ancient Egyptians. For thousands of years, it's been fertile land. But it's hard now to make a living.
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ARRAF: The train that comes through here heading north to Cairo has carried thousands of young men away to find work. A lot of them go further, including to Libya, where Egyptian Christians have been beheaded by ISIS and declared saints by the church. We don't visit Smedah because we're told by church officials if we do, we'll get villagers into trouble. There's another village that hasn't been able to get approval for a church - Zafarana. The same week that Secretary of State Pompeo praised Egypt's religious freedom, a mob surrounded Christians who were praying in a house there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in foreign language).
ARRAF: Video confirmed by the church shows hundreds of village men crowded into a narrow street around a door with a cross. They're shouting, leave, leave. Security forces had to escort two priests to safety.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in foreign language).
ARRAF: We arrive in Zafarana as the mosque calls Muslims to prayer. We chat briefly with a few people in the street. They say they have no problem with Christians. But the issue was they were never consulted about a church. Two policemen sit on a bench outside the locked church building. At the bishopric in the city of Samalut, Father Gergis Hakeim says they've been waiting for approval for anywhere from two years to more than a decade to license 18 churches and church buildings, including the one in the village of Smedah.
GERGIS HAKEIM: (Through interpreter) There are laws regarding churches. It's a long process to submit papers for building a new church. But there are urgent cases. And we already have the churches. So why can't we pray in them? What is the problem? Do we require official permission to pray?
ARRAF: The governor of Minya refused to be interviewed on why he won't issue permission for the churches to be opened.
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ARRAF: Just a few miles from these bustling streets, there's a monastery on the spot where Mary and Joseph are believed to have passed with Jesus as a baby when they fled to Egypt. In this era, Christians in Egypt say they're struggling to keep their religion alive. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in Egypt's Minya province.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)