The Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed in August 2016, mainly to regulate the process of licensing the building of new churches and the restoration and renovation of already existing ones. The law, however, also made provisions for legalising the status of non-licensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings, and set the deadline for application for legalisation a year after the law went into effect. That deadline was 28 September 2017.
Articles 8, 9 and 10 of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches focus on the legalisation of unlicensed churches. This feature in the law is definitely no minor objective, since it addresses a heavy legacy of long decades of ‘crisis era’ for Copts, during which approvals and licences to build new churches were almost impossible to get. The result was that many much-needed churches and Church-affiliated community centres were built without licence. Their presence was no secret; they served as de-facto places of worship, and local authorities were fully aware of their presence and role. These buildings were assigned official security guards and, on various religious occasions, were visited by local State officials who extended good wishes to the congregation. But the fact remained that they were illegally constructed and needed to be legalised.
According to Article 8 of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches, the legal representative of each sect should present the lists of and applications by those churches and affiliated buildings which require legalisation, and which comply with Articles 9 and 10 of the law, to the special committee formed to decide on that matter. This committee comes under direct supervision of the Cabinet. But Article 8 also includes a significant text which reads: “In all cases, practising religious rites and activity in any of the afore mentioned buildings or annexes may not be hampered or halted under any circumstances.” Deplorably, this text is time and again overlooked or violated by local administrative and security authorities that insist on closing down de-facto places of worship or impeding the practice of religious rites in them under irrelevant pretexts, as though they never read the law. But this is another story I plan to raise some other time; today my focus is: what after 28 September?
Article 9 of the law stipulates that any building which stood on the day the Law for Building and Restoring Churches went into effect, 28 September 2016, and where Christian religious rites are practised, is considered licensed, as long as a report by a consultant construction engineer registered with the Engineers’ Syndicate approves its structural soundness. Article 10 stipulates the same measures in the case of any Church-affiliated building, community centre or retreat home, as long as the building in question is owned by the Church and answers to the conditions and regulations stipulated in Article 9.
In accordance with the law, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a decision on 26 January 2017 to regulate the procedure of legalising already-existing unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings, and set the deadline 28 September 2017 for submitting the required applications and documents to the relevant committee. The PM’s decision decreed that the committee should convene at least once a month, issue its decisions, and present a monthly report to the Cabinet for the necessary on-the-ground measures towards official legalisation. I expect this monthly report to be publicised, in order for the public to follow up on the outcome and on the ease or complication with which the law is applied.
In its current issue, Watani is printing a roundup of the churches and Church-owned buildings that submitted legalisation applications before the deadline of 28 September 2017. Nationwide figures stood at: 2,600 buildings that belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, 110 to the Catholic Church, and 1,020 to the Evangelical Church, making a total 3,730 cases awaiting legalisation. If anything, the figures reflect the scale of bitter legacy of the ‘crisis era’. Watani takes it upon itself during the upcoming months to follow up on and publish the reports issued by the Cabinet in this regard, hoping that the process would be conducted with all due seriousness and transparency.
1 October 2017