Problems on hold
Police closes down churches awaiting legalisation
The Law for Building and Restoring Churches went into force in September 2016. Articles 8, 9 and 10 outline the course to be followed in order to legalise the status of unlicensed churches. The law stipulates that the Prime Minister should issue a decision to form a committee that would investigate the files of these de facto churches and accordingly approve their legalisation. The committee was formed by order of the PM on 26 January 2017, following which and until the deadline of 28 September 2017, it received 3730 applications filed by the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Egypt to legalise the status of non-licensed churches or Church-affiliated buildings.
Once the file examination process started, everyone was optimistic that the agony surrounding unlicensed churches would come to an end, and that Copts would finally enjoy the legitimacy to practise their religious rites in these buildings as stipulated by the Constitution, and claim citizenship rights equally to their fellow Muslims.
Article 8 of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches reads: “In all cases, practising religious rites or activity in any of the buildings or annexes mentioned in Articles 9 and 10 may not be hampered or halted under any circumstances.” Article 9 stipulates that any building which stood on the day the Law for Building and Restoring Churches went into effect, and where Christian religious rites are practised, is considered licensed, as long as a report by a consultant construction engineer registered with the Engineers’ Syndicate approves its structural soundness. Article 10 stipulates the same measures in the case of any Church-affiliated building, community centre or retreat home, as long as the building in question is owned by the Church and answers to the conditions and regulations stipulated in Article 9.
It is common knowledge that the committee would not have accepted the 3730 files had they not complied with the conditions stipulated by the law. Accordingly, there is absolutely no room not to empower Article 8 that renders it illegal to hamper or halt the practice of religious rites or activity in any of these buildings, under any circumstances.
As we sing the praises of the law, however, officials in State administration and security authority flagrantly defy it under flimsy pretexts, oblivious to the fact that in so doing they shatter State prestige, mock the law, and fail to perform their duties. More seriously, they reward extremists and fanatics by allowing them to get away with their terrorist crimes.
We had imagined that the 2014 Constitution and the law for building and restoring churches and legalising their status would have put an end to the decades-long practice of security reports used to close down churches, whether licensed or not, under the pretext that “they [the churches] pose a threat to social peace and stability”. Curiously, these reports never dared describe the fanatics who attacked the churches as “posing a threat to social peace and stability”; rather they were allowed to bask in the glory of their deeds while the churches were closed for threatening social peace and stability. We thought this used to happen under a bygone ‘crisis era’ when it was near impossible to build licensed churches. Today, this ‘era’ is being reborn in a new form. Rather than claim that “churches threaten social peace and stability”, a new cliché is applied: “we fear for the safety of Christians from the extremists”. This was the case with three de facto churches in Minya and one in Sohag when recently, in the span of two weeks, security authorities closed them down to appease extremist Muslims. All four had applied for legalisation, and thus should not have been closed, nor should religious rites have been halted in them or hampered under any circumstances.
Copts are Egyptian citizens who passionately love their country and, together with their fellow Muslims, endure the blows of the terrorism that strike Egypt. They stand firm against all fanatic attempts to create a rift between them and their Muslim fellow citizens, and always defend their nation in local and global circles. They deserve to feel that the State supports them, protects them, and upholds their legitimate rights. They are entitled to see the State fight extremists not fear their terrorism.
The State’s defence of its dignity, the rule of law, and Coptic citizens is no less a feat than its war against the terrorism that plagues Egypt.
5 November 2017