A 64-year-old landmark ruling

06-11-2016 12:16 PM

Youssef Sidhom

Youssef Sidhom

Problems on hold




When the House of Representatives passed the Law for Building and Restoring Churches last August, Watani eagerly welcomed the law as the first purely Egyptian legislation in 160 years to regulate the building and restoration of churches. It replaced the 1856 Ottoman Humayouni Edict, the 1934 Ten Conditions of al-Ezabi Pasha, and the odious security dominion, which had until then governed church construction. Despite reservations regarding a number of articles in the new law, Watani invited a sceptical public to put the law to the test rather than denounce or oppose it at face value. We called upon Copts to submit their requests for building, restoring or fortifying churches, also for legalising the status of unlicensed existing churches, to the relevant State authorities. We pledged to follow up on these requests to see how the new law would be applied on the ground. 

We are still awaiting the executive bylaws for the Law for Building and Restoring Churches, hoping that they would elucidate the ill-defined articles of the law. Article 2 of the law, for instance, stipulates that: “the size of the church to be licensed and any building annexed to it should be in proportion to the number and need of the Christian citizens in the locality, taking into account population growth.” This clause caught my attention when the law was yet a draft and, in my editorial dated 28 August 2016, I asked what number of Christian citizens was the law referring to? I wrote, “There is no official figure for the number of Christians in Egypt. The State does not announce their numbers on the national or local levels, so who can place a reliable figure upon which decisions are to be taken on how big or small a church should be, or whether or not one should be built in the first place? Besides, the draft law does not cite any exact ‘proportion’ regarding the size of church required for a given population.” [http://en.wataninet.com/opinion/editorial/problems-on-hold-92/17201/].

My lawyer friend Magdy Grant from Girga, Sohag, agrees with me; he too wonders what possible measure could be employed to estimate the reasonable proportion between the size of a church and the needs of a congregation. He also questions how Coptic population growth could be computed under the conditions of official obscurity imposed by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics regarding the numbers of Copts. “More importantly,” Mr Grant says, “why would we even need to reckon a numerical ratio between the number of Christian citizens and their need for a church to pray in?

“We have between our hands,” Mr Grant says, “a document that goes back to the good old times when Egypt applied the constitutional provisions of equality, freedom of belief, and freedom to practise religious rites to all citizens.” Mr Grant’s words refer to a 1952 ruling issued by the State Council, the highest administrative court in Egypt, which granted Copts the right to build churches without restrictions and rooted a number of historic principles in this regard. This was before the July 1952 Revolution which overthrew the monarchy in Egypt and turned the country into a republic.

The legal reasoning behind the 1952 ruling reads as follows:

  • The Constitution has granted all sectors of the Egyptian population the right to practise religious rites according to the law and prevalent social norms. The Property Authority has approved the building of the church provided the neighbours grant their approval. The insistence of the administration that approval by the neighbours is prerequisite to building the church is not based upon the law and is tainted by abuse of power since the freedom granted by the Constitution is not subject to any condition. The will of the neighbours should not be a factor in licensing the building of the church, and should not be a reason for the State to impose constraints on it.
  • Official directives include nothing that can be taken as grounds to prevent the building of the church because of the small number of Copts or because of the existence of other churches in the locality. The directives say nothing about a minimum number of individuals who have the right to apply for the erection of a church.
  • Religious and constitutional studies were submitted by Egypt’s Court of Appeals to the Prime Minister and to the head of the Royal Bureau demanding annulment of the Interior Ministry’s administrative regulations that pre-require the neighbour’s approval to build a church, also those regarding the number of Copts who have the right to build a church. Accordingly, denial of license to build a church basing on either of those two conditions is unfounded and has no backing in the law, and should thus be rejected.

Mr Grant says that history will faithfully record in letters of light the details and legal reasoning of this ruling, and will elevate those who issued it to the level of heroes. First among them was Judge Dr Abdel-Razeq Sanhoury Pasha who at the time headed the State Council, and whose words will remain a beacon for generations to come. Today, 64 years on this unique ruling, we still await the rules that qualify Copts in Egypt to the right to build a church.

I thank Mr Grant for this radiant glimpse of the good old times, and anticipate the passage of the bylaws for the Law for Building and Restoring Churches.


Watani International

6 November 2016




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