Law for building and restoring churches: Cautious optimism

16-10-2016 01:01 AM

Youssef Sidhom

Youssef Sidhom




Problems on hold






It is barely a month now on the passage of the long awaited Law for Building and Restoring Churches. As a bill and later as a law, the legislation gave rise to raging controversy. Even before it was put to the test, some welcomed the law while others condemned it as a conspiracy against Copts. Despite a few reservations, I was among the optimistic set. I said the new law could only be fully judged once it became a reality on the ground, and that the door for amendment was always open should it prove deficient in any way. In my 11 September 2016 editorial [] I wrote “Crying over spilt milk benefits nobody, pointing fingers will not change the law, and demanding the amendment of a law passed by a two-thirds majority before its application is absurd”. I urged Copts in Egypt to begin submitting to the relevant authorities applications for building new churches, restoring ones that needed restoration, and demanding the legalisation of unlicensed churches. I advised them to monitor how the requests are handled and how the authorities respond to the new law: would they approve the applications or requests without undue complication, or would they attempt to hold them back?

Now voices that oppose the law have grown faint; they might be waiting in the wings to pounce at any hint of a church-building related problem. But HH

ButBut I am keen to detect any positive move instead of condemning and lamenting the presumed curtailment of rights. Last week’s news carried a statement by Housing Minister Mustafa Madbouli which declared that the New Urban Communities Authority has approved three applications for building new churches. One concerned a request by the Evangelical Church in Egypt to allocate a plot of land to build a church in the Fifth District in New Minya; the second approved the allocation of a 2,000 sq.m-piece of land in the southern extension of New Fayoum for the Coptic Orthodox Church to build a new church; the third allocated 1650sq. m of land to build a church at the Evangelical Church’s community centre in Badr City’s Fourth District east of Cairo.

All three approvals stated that the applicants must abide by the construction regulations for religious buildings, and that in case the applicant does not complete the construction works within the legally-stipulated period of time, the allocated plot of land would be returned to the State, in accordance with the regulations.

I deliberately focus on the conditions in order to cut the road before those who are masters of undue opposition and condemnation. It is important that applicants abide by the legal conditions and promptly follow up on the paper work required. They should monitor any delay in required approvals in order to officially apply for additional time to compensate for the time lost. Worth noting is that return of the land to the State in case the applicant does not complete construction works on time is no special intransigence on the part of the authorities against churches, but is an implementation of the well known law that applies to lands in new urban communities where land is not sold but is allocated free of charge for various projects. The condition ensures the land is not misused or sold off at a profit. If a project is completed on time, ownership of the land moves into the hands of the project owners; but if a project fails to meet the deadline the land is reclaimed by the State. These conditions are in force in all new urban areas and satellite towns; they were not invented to impede church building. Those applying for permits to build new churches must grasp these conditions because ignorance of the law does not absolve one from penalty in case of violation.

I hope the recent approvals for new churches constitute a good start for the Law for Building and Restoring Churches. I also aspire to hear of approvals for church restoration or the legalisation of already-existing non-licensed ones. I ask all who submit applications on this score to report to Watani and we will follow up on the outcome. After a reasonable period of time, we will be able to judge whether the new law has eased or complicated the building and restoration of churches. Watani’s monitoring role will not stop once applications are approved, but will extend to all phases of the work, according to the approvals. This will be the real test to the law and to the executive authority. Collective Coptic consciousness overflows with extended bitter, humiliating memories of oppressive decades-long injustice concerning church building. Many decades have witnessed the abrupt interruption or halting of officially licensed works of church building or restoration when some fanatic [Muslim] individual or group would attack the site. The local security officials would more often than not look on then order an indefinite stoppage of the work ‘for security reasons’.  The new law should not tolerate that, and will be judged not on the mere granting of approvals or permits, but on their implementation.

In the 7 September issue of the Cairo daily al-Ahram, under the title “The majority’s sentiments threaten the nation”, columnist Ahmed Abdel-Tawwab wrote: “Some have chosen that the so-called sentiments of the majority should act as arbiter during disputes. They effectively placed these sentiments above all sources of legislation. The result was a free fall from the spirit of the Constitution and rule of law to the imposition of majority sentiments that sideline the Constitution and the law.” I say that this has gone on long enough in the case of the building and restoration of churches. Now we have a new law and I am cautiously optimistic.


Watani International

16 October 2016



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