Problems on hold
I have been busy for four weeks now tackling in Watani editorials the omission of inheritance regulations from the draft family bylaws for Egyptian Christians. The issue is crucial where gender equality is concerned. In absence of inheritance provisions specific to them, Christians in Egypt have been obliged to follow Islamic sharia-based laws which grant males double the share of females in inheritance. Today, however, I lay down the inheritance file and pick up another equally important, even urgent, one. This does not mean that I in any way relinquish my call for an inheritance law through which men and women are treated as equals; I am still especially keen that this issue should climb to the top of the priority list of Copts in specific and Egyptians in general, and intend to pursue the issue until it goes down in history as an achievement for a modern, civic Egypt.
In this editorial, I open the file of the law for building churches. Copts have suffered long and hard on account of the absence of a fair law that governs the building of places of worship. This is a sad story that draws its roots from the 1856 Humayouni Edict when Egypt was under Ottoman rule, which required non-Muslims to obtain a decree from the head of State to build any new place of worship. In 1934 the Deputy Interior Minister Muhammad al-Ezabi Pasha set the notorious Ten Conditions for building churches; these conditions were especially harsh, restrictive, and flagrantly discriminatory. In more recent times, security authorities held oppressive sway over the building, fortification, renovation, restoration, demolition and rebuilding, and expansion of churches. All through, the freedom of Copts to build churches and practise their religious rites was severely restricted. Successive presidents held on to the authority granted by the Humayouni Edict for the head of State to single-handedly grant permission for building new churches. Noteworthy is that no similar restrictions were ever imposed on the building of mosques, a fact which rooted the discrimination against and humiliation of Copts, and dealt a painful blow to Egypt’s successive constitutions, all of which honoured freedom of belief and secured the right to practise religious rites.
Things took a brighter turn with the 2014 Constitution. Article 235 stipulated: “In its first legislative round after this Constitution comes into effect, the House of Representatives shall issue a law to regulate the building and renovation of churches, guaranteeing Christians the freedom to practise their religious rites.” So Copts today anticipate the passing of a law to govern the building of churches. Such a law should put in place the regulations, parameters, duties and freedoms that would guarantee that Christians do not fall prey to the whim of security, governmental or presidential authorities.
The ball is now in the court of parliament which should honour the Constitution’s explicit requirement that the law be passed during the first round of the House of Representatives. As I see it, the House does not have the luxury of time. According to Article 106 of the Constitution, MPs serve a five-year term which starts on the date of the first session; this term is divided into five successive parliamentary rounds separated by parliamentary recesses which customarily span July, August and September. It has been a few months since the House of Representatives held its first session, during which period the House was busy passing its internal bylaws, forming the subcommittees that would allow it to get on with its business, reviewing and approving or rejecting the presidential decrees that had been issued in 2013 – 2016 when Egypt had no parliament, and is currently discussing the government’s programme. All this has taken time and effort, and now one cannot help wondering whether or not the House will be able in its first round to achieve all the legislative tasks required of it, among them the law governing the building of churches.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dr Aly Abdel-Al, recently declared that the House is shouldered with so many legislative burdens, that it might be necessary to forego the parliamentary recess. But I must admit it is difficult to imagine that MPs can effectively work through two parliamentary rounds in succession without a pause to catch their breath or rejuvenate their energy.
Our aspirations now hinge on three parties that together hold the keys to passing the law for building churches during the first parliamentary round; otherwise we risk a constitutional predicament. First, the Church must conclude negotiations with the government regarding the details of the articles of the law, and write a final draft. The government must prepare the appropriate legislative draft and forward it to the House of Representatives which shoulders the biggest burden of all, that of studying and discussing the bill to pass the law.
Will the coming few months see the birth of a new law for building churches? We hope against all odds that the law sees light, since it stands to root the historic implication that all Egyptians are equal where their places of worship are concerned. Or will some unpleasant ‘surprise’ come up?
17 April 2016