The law for building and restoring churches which was passed by the House of Representatives on 30 August is still a matter of deep controversy on the Egyptian rights front. Wataninet posted a translation of the law on [http://en.wataninet.com/politics/parliament/finally-law-for-building-churches-passed/17257/]. Even though the law has been long hoped-for, not everyone is happy with it; some have ventured opinions which say it disappoints more than it fulfils aspirations.
The newly passed law took some careful drafting and tough negotiations between the representatives of the Churches of Egypt on one hand and the government on the other. The Churches studied the matter thoroughly over a months-long period, and expressed their viewpoints and demands in a preliminary draft which they presented to the government. But when the government wrote a draft law to put before parliament, the Church was amazed to find that it included what it described as “unacceptable changes and impractical additions” that contradicted citizenship rights. On 18 August 2016 the Church rejected the draft law. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/church-warns-against-bill-for-building-churches/17171/]
Another round of negotiations between Church and government brought about some compromise; a new draft law was agreed upon on 24 August and put before the House of Representatives on Monday 29 August.
For two days, parliament was the scene of stormy discussions on the law before it was finally passed on 30 August. Coptic MPs strongly objected to specific clauses which they saw as overly restrictive or outright non-constitutional in the 13-article law, but a compromise was finally reached.
The law was passed by a two-thirds majority vote.
Pope Tawadros II said the law came to rectify injustices that have plagued and wounded Copts for 160 years, [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-issues/do-christians-in-egypt-need-a-law-to-build-churches/17204/] It promotes stability, equality, and citizenship rights. But not a few rights and Coptic activists see that the law can do with much improvement.
Proof in the application
For his part, Bishop-General Anba Macarius of Minya where some 65 per cent of attacks against Copts in Egypt occur and a majority of these attacks take place on account of the desire of Copts to build churches, said that there is general fear among Copts that the implementation of the law will bring on many problems.
Anba Macarius acknowledged the good intentions behind the law but, he said, it still stipulates that licences for building churches are to be issued by the provincial governors, meaning that they are subject to the whim of one person who may or may not be in favour of a church being built. There are fears also, according to Anba Macarius, about hints at security concerns to be taken into account upon licensing churches.
“We have waited so long,” Anba Macarius said, “close to 160 years for the law to be passed. It should have been given more care and offered to societal debate before being issued, in order to evade all the problems we usually face on the ground. There is also an ambiguity in many of the items of the law; the phrasing and wording is rather ill-defined and elastic. In all cases, we now have to wait and see how the law would be applied, and whether or not there is a real political will on the part of the executive authority to put an end to the myriad of problems that pertain to the building of churches.
Anba Macarius is not alone in his fears; the wariness is generally shared by Church officials and a wide sector of Copts who have first-hand bitter experiences with the building and restoration of churches.
The movement Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination (MARED) is on a campaign to gather signatures for a letter to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi requesting him not to ratify the law till it is offered to societal debate. MARED Coordinator-General Mounir Megahed said that this was the last resort to stop what he described as a defective law which did not get a chance for in-depth discussion going into force.
“Article 129 of the Constitution,” MARED’s letter said, “gives the President of the Republic the right to approve or disapprove laws. In case he does not approve, he has to return the law back to parliament within 30 days since parliament informed him of it.
“It was the purpose of the law to fulfil a constitutional entitlement, according to Article 235 of the Constitution, for Christians in Egypt to practise their religious rights freely. But this purpose has been far from achieved because of the following reasons:
“Articles 3 – 5 of the law require that churches alone to the exclusion of all other buildings in Egypt, pre-require a governor’s approval. The law includes no specific criteria for the governor’s approval or rejection of an application to build a church. Nothing was declared about the instance in which a governor chooses to give no answer; the law does not stipulate that it indicates automatic approval of the application as in legal tradition.”
MARED says in its letter that the law states that the building law 119 for year 2008 should apply to churches, but this law is only valid in towns. It should have been mentioned that churches built in villages or hamlets are exempted.
Article 2, MARED says, relates the size of a church to the number of Christians in the neighbourhood and their needs. “This places a double restriction on building churches,” the letter explains. “Article 64 of the Constitution stipulates the freedom to practise religious rites regardless of numbers. The new law talks of ‘need’ without specifying how this need is defined or who defines it.”
The MARED letter goes on to cite the legal intricacies included in one by one of the articles of the law, and explains how poorly the law defines them and how ambiguous the manner of application. A flagrant example is Article 9 which includes five conditions for the legalisation of existing unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings. One of these conditions is that they should “adhere to the regulations and rules relating to State defence”. This, MARED says, is a condition that is neither understood in meaning or content, nor in how it relates to already existing churches that need licensing. “Existing churches should be legalised without condition.”
MARED’s letter concludes with a remark that the law in its present form is a reproduction of the Hamayouni Edict and the Ten Conditions. “We demand that the entire law should be revised before ratification; otherwise we will have on our hands a law that enshrines discrimination, defeats citizenship rights, and hampers the freedom of Christians to practise their religious rights.”
7 September 2016