With comfort and appreciation, I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision, announced on 8 April 2020, to approve legalisation of the 15th batch of unlicensed churches and affiliated community service buildings. The new batch comprises 41 churches and 33 service buildings approved for legality by the Cabinet committee tasked with legalising unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings. The number of cases the committee has looked into and approved for legality is now 1568 out of 3730 cases that had applied for legalisation before the deadline of 28 September 2017. Accordingly, in the span of 30 months, the committee has completed 42 per cent of the charge assigned to it by the Law for Building and Restoring Churches, which went into effect on 28 September 2016.
Until the Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed in Egypt in September 2016, it was next to impossible for Copts to obtain official licence to build or restore a church. Copts, who direly needed churches in view of the growing congregation and declining conditions of existing churches, thus resorted to circumventing the law and building churches without licence. The 2016 law includes provisions for legalising already existing unlicensed churches and church-affiliated buildings.
Today, I applaud the most recent decision by the Cabinet committee since, given the current coronavirus outbreak and the priority health issues have rightly taken over any and all other issues, I did not expect the Cabinet to carry on looking into the legality of unlicensed churches. With the State mobilising all its capacities to fight COVID-19 in Egypt, I was considerate of the possibility of freezing the activity of the Cabinet committee charged with legalising churches till some future date when the coronavirus crisis would have abated.
Driven by a sense of national responsibility, churches and mosques in Egypt had voluntarily closed down once the coronavirus outbreak was deemed a serious health threat to the nation, gatherings were banned and social distancing recommended. Prayers or services inside churches were severely restricted, limited when necessary to a few priests and deacons; in mosques they were restricted to the call to prayer, azan by mosque imams. In the same spirit, I saw there would be no problem should the legalisation of unlicensed churches be put off to a more amenable time. I make a point of spelling this out since it would not have been right to harp on the issue of legalising churches and affiliated buildings before Egypt could safely overcome the COVID-19 challenge.
Today, Sunday 10 May 2020, Watani publishes the detailed lists of the churches and affiliated community service buildings included in the 8 April Cabinet decision, their location and to which denomination they belong. Incidentally, they all belong to the Orthodox and Evangelical Churches, none belong to the Catholic Church. Approvals for legalisation are only final provided the buildings are structurally sound, civil defence conditions are all met, legal ownership of the building by the Church confirmed, and all dues paid.
The most recent approvals on 8 April bring total number of unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings approved for legality by the Cabinet committee up to 1568 cases comprising 937 churches and 631 service buildings.
The 15th batch comprises 74 buildings that fall into five lists. Following are the main features of these lists.
The first list includes 54 churches and community buildings the legalisation of which was approved unconditionally since all their papers were in order.
The second includes 14 churches and buildings the legality of which was approved pending legal proof of non-disputed Church ownership of the land on which they stand, and payment of any outstanding dues to the State.
Third, churches and community service buildings the legality of which was approved pending payment of dues owed to the State. These comprise three cases.
The fourth list comprises two cases approved pending fulfilment of structural soundness conditions that require demolishing the present buildings and rebuilding them.
Only one church is on the fifth list; its legality was approved pending demolition and reconstruction, on account of severely lacking structural soundness. In addition, outstanding dues to the State should be paid, and proof should be furnished of absence of any dispute concerning Church ownership of its land.
Again, I extend my thanks and appreciation to the Cabinet committee for faithfully proceeding with its task of legalising unlicensed churches at an exceptional time of national emergency, when it would have been blameless had it refrained from doing so.
10 May 2020