Problems on hold
In last week’s editorial, the second in a three-episode detailed reading into the legalisation of unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated community service buildings, I scrutinised the work of the Cabinet-affiliated committee charged with looking into the conditions of these buildings with the aim of granting them legality according to Egypt’s Law for Building and Restoring Churches. Until that law was passed in 2016, it was next to impossible for Copts to obtain official licence to build or restore a church. Copts, who direly needed churches in view of growing congregations and declining conditions of existing churches, resorted to building churches without licence.
I demonstrated that, among the churches and community service buildings approved for legalisation by the Cabinet committee, not a few were granted approvals pending compliance with conditions stipulated by the law. Such conditions included required papers or ownership documents; structural soundness, or adherence to civil defence rules. Once the conditions are fulfilled, legalisation of the buildings becomes final.
So far, the Cabinet committee issued legislation approvals for 10 batches of buildings through 10 official decisions that concerned 1171 out of a total 3730 unlicensed churches and Church affiliated buildings that had applied for legalisation prior to the deadline set by the 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches. This means that the committee has completed 31.4 per cent of its charge, and still has to look into the remaining 68.6 per cent. The details of only nine of the batches of buildings approved for legislation have been publicised, however. These include 1109 cases of which 796 gained full approval, and 313 gained conditional approval. In other words, 72 per cent have been fully approved whereas 28 per cent await compliance with regulations.
I pointed out last week that Egyptian law now fulfils the constitutional right of freedom to build places of worship, provided the relevant lawful procedures are followed and the legal requirements respected. This means there is no justification for Copts to build churches or Church-affiliated buildings outside the law, as they were used to do during the miserable times before 2016, what we term “the crisis era”. Back then, application for license to build a church was met by indefinite official procrastination, stalling, or outright rejection. This is now gone for good, meaning that Copts no longer have any excuse to build, restore, or demolish and rebuild churches without licence. They should walk the legal path of applying to the relevant authorities for the required permits, attaching with the application the documents demanded by the law. If the application is given no reply within the span of time stipulated by the law, legal action should be taken by the applicants. The law does not allow for disregard of applications, neither can a right be lost if demanded.
Why do I keep on stressing the legal conditions for building churches? Because I still get requests for contributions or donations to build new churches in small, underprivileged villages that direly need them, a legitimate request that warrants positive response. When I go through the papers handed to me, however, I discover that in some cases no official application was submitted to the relevant authorities for licence to build the church. As though nothing has changed since the crisis era. I then go back to those in charge, and urge them to take the legal path to secure a licensed, legitimate church. I promise that in case officials stall or place any illegal hurdles in the path of projected churches seeking legality, Watani would support all efforts by those in charge of the church to gain their right. Citizenship is all about rights and duties; we pledge to fulfil our duties even as we demand our rights.
13 October 2019