In a landmark decision, an Egyptian court in Alexandria, ruled that churches may not be demolished or used for any purpose other than worship.
The ruling was based on a Constitutional Court decision that goes back 12 years ago and which stipulates that churches and mosques are both places of worship that must be treated on equal footing. Constitutional Court rulings supersede all others, the Alexandria court stressed.
The recent court ruling was also based on an opinion by al-Azhar, the Cairo-based Islamic institution which dates as far back as the 10th century and is today the topmost authority on Sunni Islam in the world. The Alexandria court’s Beheira circuit—Beheira lies west of the Nile Delta—had referred to al-Azhar, for its opinion on the matter. The reply given was that non-Muslims in Muslim countries were entitled to protection of their places of worship; churches may thus not be demolished or converted to any use other than what they were originally built for.
No Rum Orthodox left
The landmark court ruling concerns a Greek Orthodox church in Rashid (Rosetta), on the northern tip of the western branch of the Nile Delta, which has been embroiled in conflict between the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Alexandria and a judge, Muhammad Mustafa Kamel al-Taranelli who goes under the name of Mustafa Tirana.
The Greek Orthodox, known in Egypt as the Rum Orthodox, formed a sizeable congregation in Egypt during the bigger part of the 20th century. They belong to the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria and All Africa which in turn belongs to the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches, and have been a separate Church in Egypt since the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in AD451. During the recent decades, however, their congregation has been dwindling in number, owing to immigration, and now stands at less than 300,000 in all of Egypt.
Rosetta is one of those places where, for more than two decades now, almost no Rum Orthodox remain. In 1990, the then Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, Parthenios III decided to sell the church they owned in Rosetta, in light of there being almost no worshippers left. The magnificent church had been built in the 6th century, and was several times renovated, the last time being in 1817. Along its outer fencing wall 14 rooms had been built which were rented as shops to different tenants. The church and shops were all sold to Muhammad Mustafa Kamel al-Taranelli at the price of EGP100,000. The sum was paid in two installments by 1993.
As soon as he paid the first installment in 1990, Judge Tirana attempted to demolish the shops and church but the shop owners, all of them Muslims, protested. The outcome was that the land was handed over to the Waqf (Religious Endowments) Authority which refused to recognise the sale basing on the fact that the land was in the first place a waqf, land locked in a trust fund and endowed to the Church, meaning it could not be sold.
Several court cases were filed by the disputing parties. Judge Tirana, a judge on the Cairo Criminal Court, took advantage of the fact that the church and its grounds had fallen out of service and were turned into a derelict area that became an unofficial garbage dump. When the court-appointed committee that was to report on the disputed land and buildings submitted its report to court, the report merely mentioned that the dispute involved a land upon which stood a desolate building—it mentioned no church—and 14 shops. The court ruled in favour of Judge Tirana. The plaintiffs appealed the case.
In the meantime, Pope Parthenios III died and was succeeded by Pope Petros VII (1996-2004), then the current Pope Theodoros II. In June 2007 Pope Theodoros II wrote an official letter to Rosetta primary court informing of the details of the sale, and explaining that at the time of the sale the patriarchate had been ignorant of the fact that Egyptian law banned the sale of places of worship. Accordingly, and in line with objections to the sale from the Antiquities Authority—the church is a 6th century building—the patriarchate was reneging on the sale and offering Mr Taranelli the sum of money he paid in addition to any suitable compensation, be it an equivalent sum, say.
The judge strikes
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, moreover, handed the church over to the Coptic Orthodox Church to use as a church. Anba Pachomius, Bishop of Beheira, delegated Father Luqa Awad to conduct services in the new church which was named after the Holy Virgin and Saint Nicolaus.
In September 2008 Judge Tirana, apparently sensing he would ultimately lose his battle in court, decided to strike. On Friday 19 September at dawn, a band of some 40 armed thugs, with a bulldozer on hand, stormed the church. They ruined the fencing wall together with a shop and warehouse owned by Ahmed Hassan al-Raghi, the eastern part of the church sanctuary, icons, the altar utensils, as well as the relics of saints kept there. They tied up the guard, 45-year-old Ashraf Fahmy, and his four children and looted their shack down to the gas cylinder they used for the cooker.
According to the locals, Judge Tirana was attempting to ruin the church so as to weaken the case against him. “But everyone knows a church stands there,” said Haj Ahmed Muhareb, a fishmonger in the neighbourhood. “Even the street still carries the name the Rum Church Street.”
Judge Tirana and his two sons, Muhammad and Mahmoud, both public prosecutors, were charged with planning the assault in order to alter the character of the building as a place of worship, with the aim of claiming its ownership. The Judge was also charged with with ruining the building and attempted murder of the guard.
Anba Pachomius insisted that the Beheira bishopric was in possession of the official letters from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate handing over the Rosetta Church. “We consecrated the church and opened it for service in 2007,” he told Watani. “It is unacceptable that a judge, of all people, should resort to such tactics.”
Attacks, and court cases
The court cases dragged on, amounting to some 40 such cases before various courts in Rosetta, Damanhour, Alexandria, and Cairo. Judge Tirana’s attempts at demolishing the church also did not stop; he had started these attempts since 1990, but the most vicious were the one waged in 2008 and another in 2012.
In 2010, Judge Tirana won a court case which fined the Coptic Church EGP500,000. This ruling was partly executed by forcefully auctioning the personal property—in this case the home furniture and appliances—of Fr Luca and Dr Alphonse Mikhail Saad, the Coptic layman in charge of the Rosetta church.
Up to that time, it was the Rosetta town authorities which had been disputing Judge Tirana in court. The Coptic Church, however, represented by Pope Tawadros II, Anba Pachomius, and Fr Luca then joined the plaintiffs versus Judge Tirana. They demanded that the demolition of the church of the Holy Virgin in Rosetta should be stopped, that the church should be rebuilt and renovated, and that the registered sale contract between the Rum Orthodox Patriarchate and Judge Tirana should be declared annulled.
On 28 March 2016, Judge Muhammad Abdel-Wahab Khafagi, deputy to the head of the State Council—the highest administrative court in Egypt—who presided over the Alexandria administrative court, Beheira circuit, ruled in favour of the Coptic Church and the Rosetta town authorities. It moreover called upon the House of Representatives to speed up the passing of a law for the building and renovation of churches, as stipulated by the Constitution.
Credit where credit is due
On 1 April, Fr Luca held a press conference in which he delivered a statement regarding the recent court ruling. The ruling, he said, instituted several legal principles of the utmost significance. It confirmed the Constitution-stipulated right of Christians to practise their religious rites, that churches may not be bought or sold, that they should be renovated and restored, and should always remain places of worship. It stressed that churches and mosques stand on equal footing and that any discrimination between them violates the Constitution. It also confirmed that Islamic sharia stands for the protection of churches and monasteries, and called for the passing of a law for building and renovating churches as per the Constitution requirement.
Fr Luca congratulated Pope Tawadros and Anba Pachomius for the court ruling in their favour. He then proceeded to sincerely thank everyone who had stood by the Rosetta church in its long struggle for justice: the lawyers for their “strong, unalloyed stand for the right, and al-Azhar and its Islamic Research Academy for their meticulous study of the matter. But Fr Luca kept his warmest words and regards for Dr Saad and his wife, Dr Angele, who “accepted, willingly and happily, to offer the huge sacrifice of seeing their furniture and appliances auctioned off before their eyes for the sake of their church. In this they verily ‘crushed the serpent under their feet’ as their Saviour did.”
He concluded by thanking all the people of Rosetta who supported the church in its case by testifying to the truth.
For his part, Pope Tawadros has officially demanded a copy of the ruling to keep in the Coptic Orthodox Church as a legal precedent.
6 April 2016