Problems on hold
All eyes in Egypt are now on the House of Representatives, eagerly awaiting discussion of a draft law for building and restoring churches. For the first time in eleven years we are confident the law will see light, since the 2014 Constitution stipulates that Egypt’s first post-2014-Constitution parliament should pass in its first round a law to govern the building and restoration of churches.
The bill has behind it a long history of absence of political will and intentional disregard on the part of Egyptian authorities and mainstream lawmakers. In 2005, MP Muhammad al-Guweili, who was also a judge and head of parliament’s proposals and complaints committee, drew a draft for a unified law for building places of worship. MP Guweili’s aim was that parliament should enact unified legislation to govern the building of all places of worship in Egypt, confirming thus full equality among Egyptians in this regard. His keen patriotic sense and the elevated values he held made him realise that Egypt needed a unified law for building places of worship rather than a law to ease the building of churches. Copts who needed to build a church almost invariably fell victim to oppressive conditions, despotism, indignity and hostility of officials in charge of licensing the building of churches. This led to notoriously prolonged periods until the required building permits were issued; that is, if they were issued at all. With a unified law for building places of worship, MP Guweili was sure the injustice against the Copts would be lifted, simply because whatever applied to churches would apply to mosques as well. Yet the bill proposed by MP Guweili never saw light, neither did subsequent bills that followed the same logic. Among them was one jointly proposed by MPs Sayed Rostom, Ibtissam Habib, Yassin Eleiwa and Mustafa al-Hawari in the wake of an infamous attack in 2007 against the Copts in the village of Bemha in al-Ayyat, Giza, where 27 Coptic-owned houses and shops were set aflame; ten houses and two shops were burned down. Also in 2007, the National Council for Human Rights presented to parliament a more detailed bill for building places of worship.
All attempts to pass a unified law for building places of worship failed. The various draft laws were approved by the proposals and complaints committee, but were never placed before parliament for discussion or voting. The bill was effectively frozen; relevant authorities only remembered its existence once Copts were attacked by extremist Muslims, upon which talk of the need for the law would resurface. But this was only to contain Coptic anger which, once abated, the bill would again be conveniently ‘forgotten’. This took place throughout various political regimes in Egypt: the Mubarak regime, the post-2011 Arab Spring military regime, and the 2012-2013 Islamist regime. When the Islamists were overthrown in July 2013, talk resurfaced of a unified law for building places of worship.
Back in November 2011, however, the topmost Islamic authority in Egypt, al-Azhar, had through Beit al-Aila which is an ad hoc Islamic-Coptic committee formed under the chairmanship of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, rejected the draft unified law for building places of worship on grounds that the religious rituals of Islam differ from those of Christianity. Beit al-Aila recommended that the government issue a law specifically on the building of churches to run in parallel to the 2001 law on building mosques, with which al-Azhar had no problems.
Egypt got a new constitution in January 2014; Article 235 of the Transitional Rulings chapter stipulates: “In its first round after this Constitution comes into effect, the House of Representatives shall issue a law to govern the building and restoration of churches, guaranteeing Christians the freedom to practice their religious rites.”
I am keen to remind of this long history in order to make two main points. The first is the patriotic, national concept of a unified law that applies to all places of worship. The second which possibly comes as a direct consequence of the first, is the resistance to passing such a law. Those who drafted the 2014 Constitution were in all probability aware of the resistance to the idea of a unified law for all places of worship; they replaced it with a law for building and restoring churches, and demanded that it should be passed during parliament’s first round. The House of Representatives, the first post-2014 Constitution parliament, can thus neither postpone nor procrastinate on the issue. Given that it is burdened with a pile-up of legislative tasks that have accumulated since the previous [post-Arab Spring Islamist parliament] was dissolved by court order in 2012 then again in 2013, it has decided to extend its first round until the end of September 2016. This annuls the customary parliamentary annual recess, and leads to two running parliament rounds this year; the second round starts directly after the first ends.
Two weeks ago, parliament’s religious affairs committee called for including all places of worship, not only churches, in the long-awaited draft law in order to achieve balance. This brings us back to talk about a unified law, for which I am obviously in favour. I believe the entire matter should now be entrusted to the legal and constitutional experts together with the lawmakers, lest any move violates Constitution’s Article 235 and hence aborts the bill for building and restoring churches. The popular saying goes: “A bird in the hand is better than ten on a bush”; it would do us good to heed it.
21 August 2016