The three major Churches in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic and Evangelical have finalised a draft for a law for building churches. Representing the Coptic Orthodox Church was Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta; the Coptic Catholic Church Anba Antonius Aziz, Coptic Catholic Bishop of Giza; and the Evangelical Church the Reverend Dr Safwat al-Bayadi who heads that Church.
Anba Pola has been chosen by the three Churches to officially hand the draft to Judge Ibrahim al-Heneidi, Minister of Transitional Justice and National Conciliation, once the Eid al-Adha (the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice) holiday ends on Tuesday 7 October. Discussions should then be conducted between the Churches on one hand and the government on the other regarding the drafted articles.
De facto churches
Anba Pola says that the law for building churches should see light either during the first round of the Parliament that is yet to be elected, or by the President himself. This decision, Anba Pola explained, should be taken by the government after the official discussions regarding the draft law are over.
Egypt’s Constitution stipulates that a law for the building of churches in Egypt should be passed during the first round of the upcoming parliament, the first after the revolution that overthrew the Islamist regime of the Muslim Brothers in July 2013.
The proposed bill includes definitions of the term ‘church’ as featured by each sect according to its rites and rituals. It also features a list and description of the health and community services offered by any typical church, and the buildings needed to house them.
The bill spells out the official permits required to license the erection of a church or affiliated service buildings, and the government authority in charge of issuing the permits. It stipulates a maximum 60-day period since the filing of an application for a permit to be issued or the application rejected. In case no reply is given within 60 days, the application is automatically approved.
The proposed bill carries no article that links the building of a church in a given neighbourhood to its Coptic population. Such an article had been previously suggested by Islamic figures and politicians, but the current bill rejected it since there are as yet no official statistics that cite the numbers of Christians in Egypt at large or in any specific location.
Buildings in which prayers are performed regularly for one to three years warrant licence as churches, the bill stipulates.
The role of the security authority, according to the recent bill, is restricted to the protection of churches, as opposed to the current role of controlling the building, renovation or expansion of existing churches or the closure of churches on grounds of alleged sectarian conflict rather than applying the law. This article is based on a legal recommendation by the State Council, the highest administrative court in Egypt, that declares that “security authorities are not party to the building of churches; their only role is to secure them.”
No problem for mosques
It is a fact on the ground in Egypt that a sizeable portion of sectarian tension results from the dire need for licensed places of worship for Christians. The laws which govern the building of churches go back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, and impose oppressive, prohibitive conditions for the building of churches. In desperation, Copts resort to worshipping in non-licensed buildings, which makes them liable to the law and to attacks by local Muslims. Since 2005, several bills for a unified law for building places of worship had been presented to consecutive parliaments, but none saw light. The topmost Islamic institution of Al-Azhar, however, rejected the idea of a unified law on grounds that there was no problem with building mosques, so why should a new law be enacted? But a new law is needed for the building of churches.
6 October 2014