Problems on hold
Since the Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed last August, it came under fire from those who saw that it failed to live up to its expectations. Many said the new law failed to achieve absolute equality among Egyptians regarding their places of worship; in this they were alluding to the fact that the new law did not indiscriminately apply to all places of worship in Egypt; it applied only to churches. Mosques remained governed by another law which the topmost Islamic authority, al-Azhar, refused to give up in favour of a unified law for places of worship. Not only that, many Copts and rights activists claimed that the new law gave legitimacy to unlawful, oppressive measures that had been commonly applied by the security or administrative apparatuses to the building and restoration of churches before the new law was issued.
I repeatedly wrote advising to give the new law a chance. I said we should monitor how it would be applied in matters that concerned the building of new churches, restoration of already existing ones, or re-opening churches which had been closed by local authorities under the pretext that their opening constituted a security threat. I said we should monitor how the new law is applied on the ground. Would its application serve to ease the building and restoration of churches as was intended, or would it further complicate the process? If it succeeds in easing the matter, the law would have fulfilled the constitutional requirement it was meant to accomplish. But if it is applied so that it compromises the freedom of Christians to build, restore or re-open their churches; if it allows for the prohibitive red tape and oppressive stalling by local authorities that prevailed in the past, the law must go back to the House of Representatives for amendment.
In accordance with my call for monitoring the application of the new law, I shed light on the decision issued last month by the New Urban Communities Authority, which approved the allocation of lands for building new churches in New Fayoum, New Minya and Badr City. [http://en.wataninet.com/opinion/editorial/law-for-building-and-restoring-churches-cautious-optimism/17672/]. I considered these approvals a good start, but wrote that we ought to follow up on their implementation to check the ease with which new churches would be finally built. This means we must check on the straightforwardness of the process of obtaining the relevant permits and approvals to complete the building, as well as the protection offered by the local authorities for the construction work to take place without attacks by extremists. Extremists have been notorious for impeding the construction of churches by waging violent attacks against the building site and the workers; sadly, the authorities have systematically responded by succumbing to the terrorist pressure, taking the easy way out and halting or closing down the [officially licensed] works or buildings. This was done under the pretext that the works or buildings constituted security threats.
In all cases, the manner of application of the law remains to be seen. I do not expect approvals that concern reinforcing already existing churches would constitute much of a problem, since these entail maintenance or restoration works for churches as they already stand. But I have serious worries about old churches that require partial or full demolition and subsequent reconstruction or expansion, since these may ruffle the feathers of extremists and fanatics. I even worry more about closed-down churches that need to be re-opened. Why were they closed down in the first place? The answer: “for security reasons”. This three-word phrase is an expression coined by the security authority during the bitter times when an unwritten rule put the construction and restoration of churches in the hands of the security apparatus. More often than not, security officials would decide to appease the terrorist extremists as the quickest, surest way to restore peace in places of unrest. In flagrant disregard of the law, they would close down licensed churches or church-related works on account of the extremist attacks and threats; never mind that these buildings carried valid official licences. It was sufficient that security officials decide a specific matter threatened social peace for them to put the law aside and take ‘necessary’ measures ‘for security reasons’.
So where do we stand today vis-à-vis the new Law for Building and Restoring Churches? Official committees have been formed to look into the cases of already existing churches closed for security reasons, in order to decide on legalising their status and reopening them for prayer. But is the work of these committees accorded sufficient transparency to ensure they would strictly adhere to the rule of law? Do their decisions enjoy immunity? Will the security authority decide to play it safe and choose not to engage in battle with the terrorist extremists, and so decide to keep these churches closed for security reasons? Or will the security apparatus recognise its constitutional responsibility in rooting citizenship rights and ensuring the freedom of Christians to practise their religious rites? This would mean that the security authorities have to take bold decisions to unfetter these churches and open them, no matter what it takes to deter any threat to social peace by those who will definitely be unhappy with the reopening of the churches.
Once more I invite readers to involve Watani in following up on the implementation of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches. Watani is ready to follow up on all the administrative and practical details involved, whether with the building of new churches, restoring already existing one, legalising the status of unlicensed churches, or unfettering the chains of churches that remain closed for security reasons. Only then will we be in a position to rationally decide whether the new law has made matters easier or more complicated.
27 November 2016