The Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement on the evening of Wednesday 18 August declaring that representatives of Egyptian Churches have taken part in an important meeting with representatives of a number of State organisations to discuss the proposed draft law for building churches. The Church representatives were surprised to find that the draft included unacceptable changes and impractical additions. They therefore declare that the draft law in its current version stands to jeopardise Egyptian national unity in view of the complications and hindrances it includes. It does not take into account citizenship rights or the national sense of Egypt’s Copts. The draft law is still under discussion, and the matter requires good intentions and a faithful patriotic sense for the future of Egypt and her unity.
The need to build churches
The dire need for a modern law to govern the building of churches has increasingly imposed itself on the Egyptian scene during modern times.
Church building in Egypt is governed by the 1856 Humayouni Edict which requires the approval of the head of State for the building of any new church, and the 1934 Ten Conditions of Ezaby Pasha, the then deputy Interior Minister. These notorious ten conditions, which must be met prior to issuance of a presidential decree permitting the construction of a church, have always been seen as extremely oppressive; Pope Shenouda (patriarch from 1971 to 2012) said they were even worse than the Hamayouni Edict.
Christians in Egypt need a law fair to legalise the building of churches and put an end to the agony and humiliation they have been subjected to for centuries on end whenever they needed licence to build a church, that is if they got one at all. The all-too-predictable result of the absence of such legislation is that, with the huge population growth Egypt has been seeing since the 20th century, Copts have had to resort to building churches without licence. This places them under threat of overnight closure if the relevant authorities decide to do so. Worse, under the pretext that they are built outside the law, churches have repeatedly been the targets of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. It is an open secret that non-licensed churches have been used as a lame excuse to target Copts, to the point that in rural Egypt a Copt may be mobbed for building a house, and that house destroyed and burned, because the local Muslims think it might be used as a future church. To say nothing of the constant feeling by Copts that they have to cheat the community if they need to worship, and that prayer has become a confrontational activity.
Christians in Egypt, however, held high hopes that the law they needed so badly would finally come to pass. The 2014 Constitution, which was drafted after the overthrow of the Islamist regime that came to rule Egypt in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, stipulates that a law for the building and restoration of churches should be passed during the first round of the first post-2014-Constitution parliament.
During a meeting between President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros II on 28 July 2016, a number of bishops who were present placed before the President specific problems that required action.
Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta, talked about the draft law for building churches, which was scheduled to go before the House of Representatives in August. He said the draft included articles the Church could never accept. Two articles in specific were points of contention. One required that the building of any new church should pre-require security approval; the other placed a condition that an existing non-licensed church would only be recognised if it had acted as a church for a minimum of five years. The Church, for its part, demanded that the first article should be altogether removed from the draft law; and the second should reduce the minimum period to one year instead of five.
President and Pope
The matter had been broached during the meeting between Pope Tawadros and the MP delegation a few days earlier. The Pope was then very straightforward when he addressed the MPs with: “We will not accept that any body or authority should hold sway over the building of churches. We have so far been governed by an outdated edict that goes back to the Ottoman Empire some 160 years ago. Do not put me in the position where I will have to reject the law,” he said.
When Anba Pola explained the matter to President Sisi during the meeting with the Pope and the Coptic delegation, the President showed profound interest. Since the draft law is proposed by the State, the President directly issued his orders that the Church’s demands should be fulfilled. It was very important, he said, that the law should be passed as soon as possible, to put an end to problems that arise on account of the Copts having to build their churches outside the law.
Even though the articles that were changed by order of the President were a boon to the Church, it is obvious that other articles were later added or changed, and that these articles are unacceptable to the Church.
Since 2005, several bills for a unified law for building places of worship had been presented to consecutive parliaments, but none saw light. In November 2011 the topmost Islamic institution of Al-Azhar, however, rejected the idea of a unified law on grounds that Islamic and Christian worship differed basically 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.
19 August 2016