Some two weeks ago my friend Refaa al-Tahtawi, the President’s chief of staff, called to tell me that President Mursi had just signed a presidential decision licensing the building of a new
church: the St Peter and St Paul church in the west Delta town of New Nubariya. Ambassador Tahtawi, who gave me the news before it was published in the official paper on 1 June, was elated at the ‘accomplishment’, as he described it, since it was the first decision President Mursi had signed to permit the building of a church. Mr Tahtawi believed this carried special significance, not least being that it should dispel Coptic fears that President Mursi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, would never enter a church or approve the erection of one. Islamist muftis—these are scholars qualified to issue fatwas, Islamic legal opinions—have issued fatwas that ban the building of new churches or the renovation of existing ones.
I thanked Mr Tahtawi for his genuine concern then sat down to contemplate the matter. That the President has approved the building of a church, the first such decision he has taken, was certainly a move to be commended. But the matter goes far beyond that particular church; it is not about any single church at all. It concerns the longstanding, complex issue of building churches; an issue which has inflicted on Copts prolonged hardship and pain, and which requires bold political will to pull it out of the dark tunnel of official inaction. It epitomises the inequality between Egyptians, in this case regarding the building of their respective places of worship. Whereas mosques are built freely, the building of churches involves serious impediments, to the point of requiring a presidential decision for the approval of the construction of every new church. The fact that the President persists in cherishing the right to license the building of each and every new church testifies to the evident, derogatory discrimination against Copts. It gives the lie to equality between Egyptians and to the unalloyed citizenship rights of Copts.
I know that some will say: “can nothing please the Copts? If they are denied the building of churches they complain, and if churches are approved they also complain?” But this is a flawed generalisation; even though the recent presidential permit warrants acclaim, the entire issue of building churches cannot be reduced to this single decision, or even to any subsequent number of similar presidential decisions. Such presidential decisions are in themselves the best proof of the persistence of the gruesome climate of discrimination against Copts when it comes to legislation governing the building of their places of worship.
The bitter, disgraceful legacy of building churches only upon presidential permit dates way back to the Ottoman Humayouni Edict of 1856. When the January 2011 Revolution erupted and promised to bring change on its wings, Copts aspired for an end to all the inequalities between them and their fellow Muslims. They expected the first post-Revolution president, President Mursi, to work for that.
Is President Mursi, or any of his aides or advisors, unaware of the bill of the unified law for building places of worship? That bill was proposed in 2005, with the aim of stipulating one and the same procedure for the building of all places of worship in Egypt. Does not President Mursi, or any of his aides or advisors, remember that the issue over this intractable bill kept resurfacing every time sectarian strife erupted over the building or renovation of a church? In the wake of the sectarian violence which erupted in Etfeeh in March 2011, Imbaba in May 2011, Merinab in September 2011; to cite but a few, promises were made by the then Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to pass the law. Has all this escaped the attention of President Mursi and his aides? Are the reports of the National Council for Human Rights—before and after the Revolution—which all insist on the essentiality of a unified law for places of worship to end the inequality between Egyptians and terminate the vile climate that governs the building of churches, all gone with the wind?
How did all this escape President Mursi when he took up his pen to sign his first presidential decision to approve the building of a church? Did it make him happy to go along the same road as his predecessors in upholding discriminatory legislation? Instead of issuing his directives to the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, to swiftly pass the unified law for building places of worship, the President signed a decision that confirms his keenness on the same old discriminatory policies embraced by his predecessors.
But this is not the only measure in which President Mursi follows in the footsteps of his direct predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s silence vis-à-vis the violence and injustices inflicted upon the Copts constituted an unwritten ‘blessing’ to that injustice. He merely ranted about Copts being no different than Muslims, but did not do much to turn this into a fact on the ground. Likewise, Mohamed Mursi retains a dubious silence regarding the subsequent threats and assaults against Copts and their churches, even as he issues presidential decisions that entrench discrimination. When recently asked by the Editor in Chief of the daily State–owned Al-Ahram about the growing complaints of Copts, President Mursi answered that Egypt’s Copts are partners in the homeland, Egyptian to the core, and equal to Muslims before the law in rights and duties. “There are no Muslims and Copts in Egypt, there are only Egyptians,” he said.
Faced by the presidential decision to build the new church in Nubariya, and the declarations made by President Mursi during his interview with Al-Ahram, I find myself incapable of spotting the consistency.
16 June 2013
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