Problems on hold
First list of unlicensed churches legalised
Under the title “The proof is in the application”, I wrote on 21 January 2018 listing a sample of the regrettable events that lead to the closure of churches by local administrative and security authorities. In the majority of cases, the closure comes as a move to appease Muslim fundamentalists who reject the presence of a church in their midst and set out to attack churches. I pointed out that, instead of protecting Copts and defending their constitutional right to worship, or catching the culprits and holding them accountable for their crimes, local officials systematically resort to closing down churches, thus halting worship. These officials erroneously believe that in appeasing the fundamentalists they gain social peace, but they do not realise that, apart from the appalling injustice they inflict on Copts, they project to the fundamentalists a pitiable image of a helpless State and toothless law. Today, six weeks following my first article, I write again on the same issue, but not with the same optimism.
The Law for Building and Restoring Churches, which went into effect on 28 September 2016, was met by Copts with relief and hope. It not only included regulations for building new churches and restoring existing ones, but also made provisions for legalising the status of existing unlicensed churches. For long years, many congregations attempted in vain to acquire licences to build churches, but were always confronted with official intransigence and insistence to deprive them of the necessary approvals and permits. Copts were thus left with no other option but to build churches regardless of licences, given that the growing population was in dire need of churches. For years on end, they worshipped in these unlicensed churches under the nose of their Muslim neighbours and the local administrative and security authorities who in most cases realised the on-the-ground predicament and simply looked the other way.
The 2016 law gave unlicensed churches the opportunity to apply for legalisation of their status, within a year since the law went into effect, to a supreme committee formed by the Cabinet. By 28 September 2017, the committee had received the applications and files of 3730 unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated service buildings. Noteworthy is that the law prohibits the closure of any church that has officially applied for legalisation. According to the Premier’s decision, the committee deciding on legalisations should meet at least once a month, and issue its recommendations in a report which it should forward to the Cabinet. Optimistically, we anticipated a positive outcome once the committee started on its task.
It took five months for the committee to meet. Last Monday, 26 February 2018, the committee announced it had met and approved legalising the status of a list of 53 churches and Church-affiliated community service centres in several places in Egypt. We hope this is just a beginning that would be swiftly followed with many consecutive lists, since we have before us 3730 churches and community centres in need of legalisation.
It must be realised, however, that the recent belated move of 53 legalisation approvals will not automatically eliminate the frustration felt by Copts. On the morning of 6 January 2018—6 January is Coptic Christmas Eve—a letter sent by the Ministry of Housing to the Coptic Orthodox Church representative in the Cabinet’s committee, notified that the Ministry has addressed 14 governorates with directives not to halt religious rites in churches that had applied for legalisation; meaning that such churches are not to be closed down. Yet to date, churches remain closed, and local authorities refuse to open them for worship. This is a flagrant violation of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches, and a disgraceful failure to empower official directives. The violations and the failure are, beyond doubt, the work of officials who believe they are above questioning or accountability.
So we are back to waiting for the law to be implemented, its proof being in its application.
4 March 2018