19 June 2011
The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces has issued a draft for a unified law for places of worship
Last Wednesday, representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church in Egypt, the Evangelical and the Episcopal churches in Egypt held a meeting at St Mark’s cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo—which is also the papal headquarters—to discuss the draft of the unified law for places of worship.
Following the meeting, the representatives of all the churches issued a joint statement in which they thanked the ruling Military Council and the Cabinet for taking the decision to pass a unified law for building places of worship. The churches, the statement declared, had been earnestly demanding the passage of such a law for years on end.
The statement stressed the need for a wide, in-depth study of the law and for its discussion by all concerned. For the moment, the statement confirmed the churches had several reservations concerning the draft law. Anba Moussa, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Youth, and Amir Ramzy who is a judge and member of the Cabinet’s National Justice Committee said a legal commission formed of members of all the churches will present a report on the draft law the Cabinet and the Military Council.
Also on Wednesday, a letter of thanks signed by Pope Shenouda III on behalf of all the churches was presented to the Cabinet and the Military Council for their effort in the direction of passing the unified law for building places of worship.
One by one
In the first official response by the Coptic Orthodox Church to the draft of the unified law for places of worship, Bishop of Youth Anba Moussa had issued a declaration which included several remarks on the part of the Church regarding the proposed law.
Anba Moussa tackled the articles of the law one by one. As regards the first article which mandates governors to issue licences for all the various construction work required for places of worship, Anba Moussa suggested that the municipalities should be mandated with the licensing process. The governor, he said, may step in as arbitrator in the case where an application is rejected.
A problem with figures
The building requirements, Anba Moussa suggested, may be standardised according to prior agreement between the religious and the official authorities. The three-month period during which a licence may be issued or rejected, he proposed, may go down to two months.
The second article, Anba Moussa said, links the number of places of worship of a given religion in a specific locality to the number of residents therein who belong to that religion. He remarked that no figures were cited as to the volume of the population required for a licence to be issued. In any case, he said, this article violates the constitutional principle of the freedom of worship and, as such, ought to be cancelled.
Another item in the second article, Anba Moussa pointed out, set the minimum distance between “similar” places of worship at 1000 metres. He suggested the wording would change to “of the same religion and same sect” since “similar” may be taken to indicate Christian churches in the wider sense, which would result in much wider distances between same-sect churches.
Another item in Article 2 also came under criticism: that which stipulates that the minimum area of land for the building of a place of worship should be no less than 1000 sq.m. “An area that wide is almost impossible to get in the villages and hamlets all over rural Egypt,” he said. “Such plots can only be found on agricultural land, and the law bans building on agricultural land. An area of 200 sq.m. would be much more likely.” He also suggested that the stipulation that a ground floor should be used for community service activities is too confining.
Anba Moussa also suggested that the item in the second article which stipulates that places of worship may not be built on land of disputed ownership may be used as an excuse to hinder the building of places of worship. He proposes that land-ownership disputes would be settled—obviously—in courts of law.
Given that Egyptian families frequently hold prayers at their homes or property, Anba Moussa drew attention that the item in the second article of the law, which bans places of worship in buildings or on the banks of canals may place citizens under legal liability.
In case of the third article which mandates governor with setting the administrative procedures required for licensing places of worship, Anba Moussa remarked that, instead of leaving matters to the whim of governors, a standard procedure should be set. He also objected to the possibility of imprisoning violators, since many of them might be clerics, and putting them in prison would increase sectarian tensions.
Anba Moussa proposed that the by-laws may make provision for attaching health or community service activities to places of worship.
From a rights perspective
For their part, rights groups and activities had their own remarks to make.
Mr Ramzy sees that the remarks put forward by the Coptic Church are reasonable and tackle the very roots of the problem of places of worship in Egypt.
Shady Talaat, who heads the union of lawyers for legal and democratic studies, rejected the draft law, saying that it only recognises Sunni Islam and Christianity. “Egypt is for all Egyptians,” Talaat told Watani, “be they Muslim, Christian, Shia, Baha’i, or any other.” The draft law, he said, appears to be geared to the two majority religions, which constitutes flagrant violation of minority rights.
“The draft law includes no provision of taking the matter to court in case of the rejection of applications for building or carrying our construction work in places of worship,” Naguib Gabrail who heads the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, said. “It does not specify the court before which such cases should be seen, nor does it specify a time limit for the court to issue its verdict. It is no secret that some cases drag in Egyptian courts for years on end. This should never be allowed in cases of building places of worship.”
Mr Gabrail drew attention to a certain predicament: that the draft law specifies the provisions for building places of worship, but none for the performance of religious rites. In order for religious rights to be practised properly, he said, both licences ought to be issued by the same authority.
…And from an Islamic viewpoint
Gamal Qurani, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, told Watani that it was the right of every Egyptian to adopt the faith he or she chooses and to worship freely. Islam, he said, confirmed the freedom of belief and treated the Christians with special sympathy. No Qur’anic or Hadith (quotes of the Prophet Mohamed) text banned the building of churches, Qurani said. “No harm can come to any Muslim because of a church built near his home,” he said.
Fro his part, the lawyer Mamdouh Ismail who is known for his clear trend towards political Islam, sent a warning to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf against passing the unified law for places of worship since, Ismail claimed, it would serve to stir sectarian sedition. The Copts, he said, whose population is at best some 15 million out of Egypt’s 82 million, can never be granted the same number of places of worship as the country’s Muslims. Qurani demanded that everyone who contributed to drafting the unified law should be brought to justice for jeopardising social peace. He said the law threatened to limit the number of mosques and Muslim prayer corners in Egypt, which ought to increase by at least 52,000 mosques.