Problems on hold
The date 28 October 2018 marked 13 months on the start of activity of the Cabinet-affiliated committee concerned with legalising the status of unlicensed churches in Egypt. Since then, the Cabinet Committee has approved the legalisation of 53 churches and church-affiliated community centres on 26 February 2018; 167 churches and affiliated buildings on 17 April 2018; and 120 others on 11 October 2018. The Prime Minister accordingly issued the legalisation decisions, provided the buildings met the conditions for structural soundness and civil defence requirements.
Simple arithmetic reveals that it took the Committee 13 months to look into 340 cases out of a total 3730 churches and church-affiliated buildings that had submitted applications for legalisation, backed by all the required documents, before the deadline of 28 September 2017. It must be stressed that all 3730 cases answered the conditions stipulated by the Law for Building and Restoring Churches that went into force on 28 September 2016. Their papers were accepted by the Cabinet Committee, meaning the applications would not be rejected; they needed only be looked into by the committee which should then approve their legalisation and pass on the approvals to the Prime Minister to issue the required decisions according to the law.
Last October’s legalisation of the third batch of unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings brought the total number of approvals to 340 out of 3730 cases seeking legalisation, that is 9 per cent of the total cases. At the same rate, it would take another 12 years for the committee to complete its work; a full 13 years to conclude its mission. Ironically, this in itself is progress, given that last August the committee had looked into 6 per cent of the cases, that is it needed 17 years to complete its mission.
Some may criticise my opinion, saying: “Does nothing satisfy the Copts?” With all due appreciation of the effort of the Cabinet Committee which includes among its ranks elite high-ranking officials of sovereign authorities, I have strong reservations regarding the manner in which the spirit of the law is being served.
The Law for Building and Restoring Churches was mainly intended to ease the building of new churches and church-affiliated buildings, the restoration of existing ones, and the legalisation of unlicensed ones built before the law was passed. That was during what we term the ‘crisis era’, the long years when political and security conditions complicated the procedures of issuing licences for new churches. Those then in authority overlooked the freedom of worship stipulated by subsequent constitutions. They allowed Muslims to freely build mosques but prevented Christians from building churches. The outcome was that churches were built in secret, disguised as other architectural units, most commonly houses. These buildings continued to host prayers, religious rites and church services, all under the nose of the administration and security officials who chose to overlook their illegal status in order to be able to close them down at whim, under the pretext that they were illegal.
Now things have changed. Egypt went through a crisis following the Arab Spring upheaval on 25 January 2011, when Islamists attempted to steal her identity. But Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, some 30 million of them, took to the streets on 30 June 2013 to save Egypt. A new era dawned uniting Egyptians on grounds of citizenship alone. In 2014 a new Constitution was passed, granting all freedoms and paving the road for the legislation needed. Among such legislation was the Law for Building and Restoring Churches and Legalising the Status of Old Churches, the churches of the crisis era. Is it then acceptable to achieve this at tortoise pace? The slow pace constitutes injustice by all standards. It is unthinkable that current de-facto churches or church-affiliated buildings should wait another 13 years to acquire legitimacy.
There is definitely something the State could do to speed up the legalisation procedure. I fully understand and appreciate the huge responsibilities shouldered by the members of the Cabinet Committee, each in his own capacity in other State posts. It is not reasonable to assume they could free themselves up to carry the responsibilities of the Committee for Legalising Churches. It is thus necessary to establish an apparatus that would be able to fulfil that task in a reasonable time span.
I imagine it would take a presidential decision to form a subcommittee, with the necessary administrations, whose sole role would be to get this work done. Only then would legalisation be achieved at a speedier pace.
4 November 2018