Problems on hold
Watani has for two weeks now extensively reported on the long-awaited law for the building and restoration of churches, known in short as the law for building churches, which is now in the phase of final drafting in order to be placed before parliament for discussion and final vote. Watani’s coverage started off with optimism that the law would finally grant Copts the freedom to practise their religious rites. By last Sunday, however, it looked like the draft law for the building of churches was facing a setback, and the optimism appeared increasingly uncalled-for. A statement issued by the Coptic Orthodox Church on Wednesday 18 August declared that representatives of Egyptian Churches took part in an important meeting with representatives of a number of State authorities to discuss the bill for building churches proposed by the government. The Church representatives, according to the statement, were surprised to find that the draft included “unacceptable changes [to a version previously approved by the Churches] and impractical additions”. The Churches therefore declared that the draft law in its current version stood to jeopardise Egyptian national unity in view of the complications and impediments it included. It did not honour citizenship rights or the national gist of Egypt’s Copts. “The draft law,” the statement declared, “is still under discussion, and the matter requires good intentions and a faithful patriotic sense for the sake of Egypt’s future and her unity.”
A lot of talk has been going on about government intransigence regarding the law for building churches, a draft of which the Churches had formerly approved but the current version of which has failed to gain their endorsement. The official obduracy has provoked several blocs in parliament to lobby for a confrontation with the government should it insist on the bill in its current form.
I do not imagine that a law for building churches would be aborted, since this would take us to a dire constitutional dilemma. Egypt’s current Constitution, which was established in 2014, stipulates that the first post-Constitution House of Representatives [the current one] should pass in its first round [the current round] a law for the building and restoration of churches. Parliament is now running out of time; the first round closes by the end of this month, but might be extended till the first week of September. But then I also do not imagine the government would insist on putting before parliament the defective bill which the Copts and Churches have roundly rejected. The liberal political parties al-Wafd and al-Masriyeen al-Ahrar have each presented parliament with a draft law for building churches. These drafts, which parliament should take into account when writing the final version of the bill that should go for discussion and voting, claim to have avoided or corrected the defects included in the government’s draft. This draft has now been made public and has generated profuse discussions, analyses, and comments on the media and social media. It is not possible for the government to turn a blind eye to public opinion of such weight. The government should realise that if it insists on its flawed version of the bill it risks confrontation with parliament and embarrassment with the public.
Anyone who reads the government’s bill that should supposedly ensure the freedom of building and restoring churches, or more precisely as per the text of the Constitution: ‘ensure the freedom of Christians to practise their religious rites’, will not fail to note the official insistence to impose custodianship and authority over the Copts where churches are concerned. Political conditions, impediments, and uncalled-for approvals that have nothing to do with the building law are embedded in the bill and pre-required for the building of a church. Elastic clauses that can mean anything and that can be exploited to hamper any projected church are implanted in the texts. Restrictive conditions abound, such as the need to hand in details of the interior of the church for approval; this curbs the freedom of church design. All such conditions play into the hands of officials who, according to personal whim, desire to reject approval for building a church; the draft law gives them clout in the final decision of whether or not a church is to be built. Surprisingly, the draft law includes no provision whatsoever for the applicant to make a claim before the courts in case the application for building or restoring a church is rejected.
An important question begs an answer: the draft law includes an unprecedented detailed description of what defines a church building. This description misses mentioning the cross or crosses which traditionally sit atop church domes and bell towers. Is this intentional? Because this item carries the potential hazard of rejecting the placement of crosses above churches under the pretext that the law includes no such thing.
The epitome of the oppression of Copts, however, and the ultimate setback for the constitutional freedoms the law should supposedly secure, comes in the article which stipulates that the governor approves the building of a church after “coordinating with the relevant authorities”. It does not explicitly cite what these ‘relevant authorities’ are, leading hence to strong doubts that they include the security authorities which have in the past been notorious for standing against the building of churches under the pretext that a church represents a threat to social peace since it provokes fanatic attacks against the Copts. The clause in the draft law carries the potential threat of aborting any project to build a church. Critics of the draft law may thus be perfectly right when they claim it comes to legalise all the oppressive, unjust practices that have for so long governed church building.
But all this pales before the real catastrophe included in the draft law: the clause which states that “the size of the church to be licensed and any building annexed to it should be in proportion to the number and need of the Christian citizens in the locality, taking into account population growth.” The Egyptian proverb goes: The worst calamities are those that are outright comical.What number of Christian citizens is the draft law referring to? There is no official figure for the number of Christians in Egypt. The State does not announce their numbers on the national or local levels, so who can place a reliable figure upon which decisions are to be taken on how big or small a church should be, or whether or not one should be built in the first place? Besides, the draft law does not cite any exact ‘proportion’ as to the size of church required for a given population.
Despite the numerous ill-defined, ambiguous items in the draft law, it includes no provision for the authority in charge to issue detailed, executive bylaws on the application of the law. Neither does it include any penalty should it be violated. Is it any surprise that it spells a menacing confrontation in parliament?
22 August 2016