Problems on hold
Egypt’s House of Representatives has passed the Law for Building and Restoring Churches just before the first parliamentary round ended. This comes in accordance with Article 235 of the 2014 Constitution which stipulated that the law should be passed during the first round of the first post-2014-Constitution parliament. Egypt now has the first Egyptian national legislation governing the building and restoration of churches, and granting her Christians the right to practise their religious rites. Before the recent law, these rights were controlled by outdated colonial Ottoman decrees and oppressive ministerial decisions, also by despotic security authorities.
For the first time in 160 years when the Hamayouni Edict was issued by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I, a purely Egyptian law regulates the building and restoration of churches and legalises the status of all unlicensed churches in Egypt. The existence of unlicensed churches testifies to long eras of Coptic suffering on account of the discrimination between them and their fellow Egyptian Muslims with regard to religious freedom. The unspeakable oppression and injustice against Copts in this regard demonstrated itself in the near-impossibility of their obtaining official licence to build churches or restore existing ones that may be falling apart. The dire need to have a place to worship in finally drove Copts to build churches even if without licence; it was this or no churches at all. The unlicensed churches were the pretext for odious clashes between Copts and Islamists, or between Copts and State authorities. In most cases, the Copts managed to retain the unlicensed churches and pray in them; local and security authorities would turn a blind eye to that even as they would never issue licenses to rectify the legal status of these churches. They thus remained unlawful buildings where Copts pray and which State officials visit on Christian feast days to extend greetings to the Copts. The security authorities assigned guards for these churches which also figured on official State maps as churches. Yet all State authorities would disclaim these churches as soon as they came under attack by extremists or outlaws, sometimes even rush to close them down under the pretext that they are unlicensed or to allegedly ‘preserve social stability and peace’.
Egypt now finally has purely Egyptian legislation that puts an end to this gruesome legacy. An unprecedented legislation that not only opens the door to the freedom of building new churches and restoring already existing licensed ones, but also legalises all unlicensed churches which have remained for decades on end threatened. Maintaining unlicensed working churches without legalising their status or closing them down for breach of law, is in itself a unique phenomenon that appears to be particular to Egypt alone. The new law puts an end to this practice.
We thus hail the Law for Building and Restoring Churches and welcome it with hope and relief. Each of us probably has some reservation or another concerning some article or detail of the law. Although many were hoping for a law free of restrictive conditions, the law is now a fact on the ground. I believe we must end the heated controversy going on around law, and focus on its practical application; this is the wise means to evaluate it and test its success. 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.
Copts in the various regions of Egypt ought to begin submitting to the relevant authorities applications and papers for building the new churches they need and restoring the ones that require restoration, also requests for the legalisation of unlicensed churches. We should then wait to see how the applications or requests are handled, and how the authorities respond to the new law. Will the relevant authorities approve the applications without undue complications, or will they work to exploit the law to impede the building or restoration of churches? The on the ground application of the law will reveal how much it succeeds in granting the freedoms and rights stipulated by Article 235 of the Constitution. If we get a positive outcome we should congratulate Egypt and the Copts; if not, we can still—Copts and Muslims—go back to parliament and demand amendment of the law. The purpose should be to root citizenship rights and equality where places of worship are concerned.
In this context I would like to draw attention to the column of Mohamed Abdel Hady Allam, Editor-in-chief of al-Ahram in its 2 September 2016 issue, which came under the title “Law for building churches … a step forward or a step back?!” Mr Allam wrote that even though parliament’s approval of the law for building churches was hailed by various parties on both the Christian and Muslim sides, and despite its accordance with Article 235 of the Constitution, the law leaves a lump in the throat. He explained that the law’s wording does not measure up to the equality in rights and duties we aspire for among all Egyptians, neither to the basics of the civic State which Egyptians in their millions went out for on 30 June 2013. New legislation for building places of worship was originally intended, Mr Allam wrote, to achieve full equality in citizenship rights—in this case among Egypt’s Muslims and Copts where their respective places of worship are concerned—thus putting an end to discrimination on that score. It was believed that the culture of the society would accept a step forward on the path of citizenship rights, but this was not to be. The need to win the approval of conservative streams during the drafting of the Constitution in 2013 led to the enactment of articles that impede the building of a truly civic State, Mr Allam wrote. These articles, he explained, put a rigid framework through which to deal with the issue of the places of worship of non-Muslims. “We can now only hope there would be no negative repercussions that would, in case administrative authorities blunder in implementing the law, leave an unpleasant impact on generations to come,” Mr Allam wrote. “We had looked forward to a more comprehensive law that would have presented the Egyptian society in a more mature image, and not in a backward discriminatory one.” According to Mr Allam, many Egyptians mistakenly thought that the Constitution stipulated a unified law for building places of worship, whereas Article 235 talked of a law for building churches alone; the building of mosques was a lucid process already governed by a lenient law. “This does not meet the ceiling of our society’s ambitions, and it shows that the Committee of the Fifty which drafted the Constitution should have risen above compromise,” Mr Allam concluded.
I greatly appreciate Mr Allam’s unequivocal, bold expression of what many—myself included—hold in their hearts. However the wise, patriotic decision would now be to put the law to the test of application on the ground, hoping it would bring in a new era for the building and restoration of churches. If it does not work that way, we should work to amend the law.
11 September 2016