In July 2008, Watani kick-started a national campaign calling for a unified law for the building of places of worship. In the meantime, Parliament received several bills in this regard but has not bothered to discuss any of them.
In 2004 – 2005, MP Mohamed Guweili submitted a draft law that gained the approval of the People’s Assembly’s Proposals and Complaints Committee (PCC) and was referred to the Housing Committee. But this was all. Another bill was submitted by a group of MPs including Ibtissam Habib, Sayed Rustom, Yassin Elewa and the late Mustafa al-Hawari. The draft law was approved by the PCC, yet no further moves were taken. Dr Georgette Qillini submitted a draft law to the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), but she later withdrew it. The NCHR itself formulated a bill but it never saw light.
In the process of campaigning for the law, Watani explored the views of 54 MPs and Shura Council members (including 11 Christians). About half of these were from members of the ruling NDP (National Democratic Party), while the rest were from the Wafd, Tagammu, Ghad, Ahrar, al-Geil, al-Dostouri, the Muslim Brotherhood and independents. Thirty-four MPs approved the draft law unconditionally; 14 had reservations about it, and four (including three from the NDP) rejected the bill altogether.
Fourteen MPs made their approval conditional on a number of terms. The first of these terms was that the number of places of worship should be directly proportional to the population, which naturally begs the question of what is the exact number of Copts, a number never announced by the government. Pope Shenouda III several times said that the Church knows the number of its members through the accurate records it keeps—especially the baptismal figures— but the government does not put a figure to the number of Copts. From the MPs reservations, however, it is obvious the reason may be that the announcement of the real number of Copts would expose the extent of injustice they are subjected to, such as the inadequately inferior number of churches they are forced to make do with, for instance.
Other reservations focused on the need to take into consideration the population growth over the coming 30 years, and that the distance separating two places of worship belonging to the same denomination should be no less than two kilometres.
One MP said that Egypt’s Islamic identity ought to be preserved when considering the bill, meaning that mosques should largely outnumber churches. Another said that the matter of church building should remain under the supervision of the security authorities, and yet another said that permits to build churches should be granted to institutions not individuals.
An Islamic country
Four deputies attributed their outright rejection to troubles expected to follow if the law is passed. Maher al-Derbi, head of Parliament’s Local Government Committee, voiced his concern that the Muslim majority would be chagrined by the law. He argued that the current process of building places of worship was positively adequate, and there was no need to pass a new law. In one of his editorials, Watani’s editor-in-chief Youssef Sidhom invited Mr Derbi to have a look at the countless problems involved in church building published by Watani. These problems more often than not impose suffering of an inhumane scale on congregations deprived of adequate places to worship.
Mohamed Farid Zakariya, a Shura Council member of the Ahrar Party, said that discussing such an issue was like walking through quicksands or a minefield. “The call to pass this law,” he said, “is being propelled by foreign powers and would have grave repercussions, particularly when taking into consideration the latest expansion of the Shia and the calls by Jews to regain their alleged properties.” All these would then be free to build places of worship. “The law would incur huge sums to finance the buildings of churches,” Zakariya said, “which is bound to provoke Muslims.”
Nabih al-Alqami, a Shura Council member, denied the presence of any problems concerning the building of new churches or the restoration of existing ones.
“Muslims constitute 90 per cent of the population, while Jews and Christians constitute 10 per cent,” said Kamal-Eddin Mustafa, another Shura Council member. He said the current number of churches was adequate to the number of Christians. “Christians should go to court when a conflict erupts over the building of a church,” he said. “The law should not under any circumstances contradict with Islamic sharia, and the fact that Islam is the religion of the State should never be overlooked. Unlike mosques, churches do not have to be big in size since the number of prayers is limited.”
MPs who supported the idea did not live up to their promises to press ahead with the law under the pretext that their schedules were too busy. MP Kamal Ahmed said he had already submitted a law project and said he would raise the issue at the appropriate time. Watani has learnt that Shura Council members Nabil Luqa Bibawi and Mohamed Essmat Sadat have submitted a draft law, while Tagammu MP Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Shaban is expected to propose a project during the upcoming parliamentary round.