11 April 2010
In the space of a single week one fortnight ago, the Shubra Misdemeanours Court of Appeals issued two successive rulings acquitting two priests of the charge of carrying out unlicensed restoration works in their churches. The court set an important legal precedent by confirming that direly needed restorations in churches or mosques should be urgently executed without need for official licence, in order to safeguard the worship process and the worshippers’ lives. The court explained in its legal reasoning that the works involved had not included any demolition or reconstruction, but were strictly involved with necessary interior restoration that ought to have been swiftly sanctioned by the authorities instead of being taken to court as building violations.
The rulings induced mixed feelings of comfort and wariness. It was comforting that the legal precedent set was bound to save countless churches the humiliating, endless wait for permits for urgently-needed restorations. Yet I was wary of the retaliation of local political and building authorities against losing their uncontested sway—subject only to the approval of the security authorities—over the licensing of church restorations.
The story goes back to December 2005 when President Mubarak ceded his authority to license the demolition, rebuilding, and expansion of existing churches to the local governors. He also decreed that restoration and renovation works in churches should be approved by the local building authorities instead of the plethora of official approvals previously required. At the time, the President’s decision was greatly applauded by the Copts, but I remember writing that it remained to be seen whether the decision would be executed seamlessly, or whether the local building or security authorities would make it their business to hinder its execution.
Hardly had a month passed when it became obvious my fears had been justified. The code set by Assiut governor for executing the President’s decision confused the demolition, rebuilding, and expansion of churches with the restoration and renovation works. The result was an executive code which practically aborted the President’s decision to facilitate the latter, rendering it subject to governorial approval. On 19 February 2006 I wrote that it was hard to imagine that the gross confusion by Assiut governor was non-intentional; rather, it appeared like a flagrant attempt to empty the President’s decision of its content. It practically gave the local building and security authorities full license to carry on with their oppressive, unjustified, indefinite delay of the restoration and renovation permits which the President’s decree had attempted to liberate.
No official, however, lifted a finger to defend the decree issued by the President from such tampering. As the days and weeks passed, the restoration and renovation of churches finally went down as one and the same as demolition, rebuilding, and expansion. It had to take a court order to remind that restoration works were normally urgent works that could not wait for official procrastination. I hope the message is clear to all our various governorates. So will the recent court rulings help change the unjust executive codes that hinder restoration works in churches, or will they just go so far as to induce rejoicing that two priests who did nothing wrong have escaped the threat of one-year prison sentences?