Problems on hold
Last month the Cabinet’s Committee for legalising the status of unlicensed churches approved the legalisation of a second batch of church buildings that lacked official licence. These included 167 unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated community service buildings in 12 governorates. Last February, the committee had approved the legalisation of 53 churches and church buildings in four governorates. The Cabinet has thus to date agreed to ‘legalise’ and ‘unfetter’ 220 churches and affiliated service buildings out of a total 3730 that had submitted applications for legalisation, according to the Law for Building and Restoring Churches which was passed in August 2016. The law was meant to ease the building of churches following long centuries when it was next to impossible for Copts to obtain official licence to build or restore a church. The outcome was that Copts, whose growing numbers created a dire need for new churches, resorted to worshipping in buildings not licensed for conducting religious rites, turning them into de-facto churches that lacked licence for worship.
As it did with the first batch of 53 newly legalised churches and community service buildings, Watani is today publishing a detailed list of the second batch of churches approved for legalisation. In documenting each case, Watani intends to follow up, case by case, on the implementation of the decision. In the case of a church in Gharbiya, another in Sohag, and two community service buildings in Beheira, the legalisation decision entails demolition or restoration of the old, structurally unsafe buildings before new or restored ones could be used as churches. This means that there are four conditional legalisation approvals among the 167 of the second batch, but 163 cases are not tied to any condition and the decision to legalise their status must thus be promptly executed without hindrance or delay.
While we welcome with comfort and optimism approvals for legalisation of unlicensed churches, it is a cautious optimism that borders on apprehension. A Cabinet’s decision to ‘legalise the status’ of a church is rather different than ‘unfettering’ it. Legalisation is a legal process declared on paper and entailing privileges and obligations; it is publicised in the official paper. This took place in case of the first decision by the Cabinet to approve legalising 53 churches and affiliated buildings; the decision was published earlier this month in the official paper. But ‘unfettering’ a church refers to the on-the-ground execution of the legalisation decision. It is the more critical move towards fully legalising a church, and as such warrants monitoring by the executive authority that issued the decision in the first place, to ensure it is properly executed.
Not a few churches and community service buildings legalised by the Cabinet are still fettered, meaning congregations have not been allowed to use them as ‘churches’ to host religious rites. This owes either to foot-dragging by the local administrative and security authorities regarding execution of the decision, or to the local officials’ submission to the hardliners who challenge these decisions by fomenting unrest to ensure they are not implemented. Copts are not alone the victims; the State pays a heavy price in its compromised dignity, just as it sends a catastrophic message to the hardliners that they can get away with their defiance of the law.
I here relaunch the call I had sent out once the Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed back in 2016. Watani is following up on the decisions issued by the Cabinet’s Committee for legalising the status of unlicensed churches, publishing each decision and the lists of churches and Church-affiliated community service centres involved. Watani also takes it upon itself to follow up on how these decisions are implemented. We thus open communication channels with all churches and community service centres approved for legalisation, in order to monitor the on-the-ground situation of Copts and their churches, and how the law is applied.
13 May 2018