Time was when Copts had to claim their right to build new churches or maintain, reinforce, restore, expand or rebuild existing ones, from Egyptian State authorities.
True, no legislative reform has yet been achieved to allow Copts to build their places of worship according to their right as the Egyptian citizens that they are, in accordance with the law, and without extraordinary constraints by the administrative and security authorities. But the new Constitution has stipulated that such legislation should be enacted, and has referred the task to the upcoming parliament, meaning that the new legislation will obviously come.
The “Time was” which I used as the opening phrase in this editorial refers to the time when the issue of the Coptic community’s dire need for new churches or for repairing existing ones was denoted as ‘the right of Copts’. The label was used as a matter of course until the Islamist and fanatic political streams exploited it to turn the issue into a sectarian one. They propagated it as evidence that Copts were in a group apart from Egyptians, and branded them as dhimmis, an Islamic term used to define non-Muslims living under Muslim rule. As dhimmis, Copts would be second-class citizens under the control and custody of the Islamist politicians. In this context, the fanatics propagated shocking claims that Islamic teachings accept the existence of already existing churches but not their renovation or the building of new ones. This implies, they say, that an old church remains in place without repair or renovation until it falls apart, and at no point may another be built in its stead. To sum it up, there was no need to build any new church in the first place.
It was the sway of fanatic, exclusionist thought and fatwas (Islamic legal edicts) later proved by Islamic scholars to be erroneous, that led to the coining of the term ‘citizenship rights’ in place of ‘Copts’ rights’. Under the principle of citizenship rights, all Egyptians stand equal in rights and duties without discrimination or exclusion. Citizenship rights are now at the forefront of the Constitution, asserting that there are no differences between Egyptians whatever their race, gender, colour, religion, creed or even social standard or political affiliation.
I wished to highlight this before presenting a fatwa recently issued by the Fatwa Committee of al-Azhar—the 10th-century venerable Cairo-based institution that is the topmost authority on Sunni Islam in the world. No matter how worthy the fatwa in content, attitude, and Islamic tolerance; it ought not divert us from our goal of full citizenship rights as stipulated in the Constitution.
Muhammad Mustafa Muhammad, in his capacity as an Egyptian citizen, filed an appeal with the State legal experts authority in Alexandria to require a fatwa from the al-Azhar Fatwa Committee on the legitimacy of demolishing churches, selling or buying them, or using their lands in purposes other than those originally intended.
After looking into the matter, the committee issued the required fatwa, the most important excerpts of which I present here.
• The baseline in Islamic sharia (Islamic law) is that anyone who embraces a faith different than the Muslim faith is entitled to rights, as long as he does not fight the Muslims. Sharia grants dhimmis some rights based on their perpetual residence in the diyar al-Islam, the lands of Islam. The same applies to tourists or visitors who live peacefully among Muslims according to the covenant of peace granted to them by the Muslims for the purpose of attaining peaceful coexistence among the members of the entire human family. Dhimmis who reside with Muslims have the same rights as Muslims and the same duties too.
• Dhimmis have the right to freedom of belief, and to protection of their lives and honour, as well as protection of their property. Accordingly, non-Muslims in the lands of Islam have the right to safe residence, assured of the protection of their blood, money and honour. The ruler must protect them from anyone who desires to harm them, and must stop anyone who intends to inflict evil upon them; protection of their places of worship included. The Caliph Omar Ibn Abdel-Aziz, historically considered the ‘fifth’ of the four benevolently-guided caliphs who came after the Prophet Muhammad, wrote to his workers that they were not to demolish any place of worship, church, or pagan temple. The Hanafi school of Islamic fiqh (Islamic thought) decrees that churches and places of worship in towns and villages are not to be harmed nor any part of them demolished.
• Accordingly, all churches that now stand on the land of Islam must not be demolished. The Hanafi and Shafei schools stipulate that if a church is demolished, dhimmis may reconstruct it, since buildings do not stay on forever. Dhimmis are not to be kept from restoring the cracks in their churches and places of worship, because preventing them from doing so leads to dilapidation, which is tantamount to demolition.
• The [Fatwa] Committee thus concludes that it is banned to extend any harm to churches or monasteries, whether through demolition or assault, or turning them to a purpose other than what they were originally erected for. Anyone who considers doing so would be going against Allah’s Qur’an and the Hadith (teachings or words) of His Prophet [Muhammad]. He would be treating his neighbour poorly, not honouring Allah’s covenant, and not promoting tolerance which is among the most prominent traits of Muslims. He would have deceived Allah and His Prophet and the honour of Muslims.
I applaud this tolerant fatwa which clearly resolves the matter of dhimmis, their worship, churches, and monasteries. It also highlights the commitment of Muslims to protecting non-Muslims and preserving their places of worship, sustaining them, and not demolishing any of them.
However, I still aspire for the day when Egyptians will replace ‘dhimmis’ with ‘Egyptian Copts’. I look to citizenship rights and hope that, instead of Muslim commitment to protect churches and monasteries, the Constitution and the law will entrench the commitment of the State and all its Egyptian citizens to equally respecting and protecting mosques, churches and temples.
23 March 2014
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