On Tuesday 30 August, Egypt’s House of Representatives passed the law for the building and restoration of churches. The passage of the law marked the end of a stormy, bitter battle the Christians of Egypt had had to fight in order to have a modern-day fair law that would allow them to build new churches or restore existing ones in keeping with their rights as Egyptian citizens.
Church building had so far been governed by outdated, oppressive legislation that went back to the 19th century and 1934. [https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-issues/do-christians-in-egypt-need-a-law-to-build-churches/17204/]
Calls for new legislation surfaced in 2005 at the hands of lawmakers and those concerned with citizenship rights. The idea then was to enact a unified law for places of worship, but this was disapproved in 2011 by the topmost Islamic authority in Egypt, al-Azhar, on grounds that the religious rites of Muslims were very different from those of Christians, and that there were no problems with building mosques so no new law was needed. The idea was then changed to enacting a law for building churches.
When a new Egyptian Constitution was established in January 2014, it included an article that stipulated that the first post-Constitution parliament, the current one, should pass a law to govern the building and restoration of churches during its first round, also the current one.
Churches, not monasteries
The newly passed law took some careful drafting and tough negotiations between the representatives of the Churches of Egypt on one hand and the government on the other. The Churches studied the matter thoroughly over a months-long period, and expressed their viewpoints and demands in a preliminary draft which they presented to the government. But when the government wrote a draft law to put before parliament, the Church was amazed to find that it included what it described as “unacceptable changes and impractical additions” that contradicted citizenship rights. On 18 August 2016 the Church rejected the draft law. [https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/church-warns-against-bill-for-building-churches/17171/]
Another round of negotiations between Church and government brought about some compromise; a new draft law was agreed upon on 24 August and put before the House of Representatives on Monday 29 August.
For two days, parliament was the scene of stormy discussions on the law before it was finally passed on Tuesday afternoon. Coptic MPs strongly objected to specific clauses which they saw as overly restrictive or outright non-constitutional in the 13-article law, but a compromise was finally reached.
The law was passed by a two-third majority vote.
Most of the articles included in the draft law were not changed.
Three preliminary articles define the purpose and scope of the law, explicitly stating that the law applies to the building and restoration of churches and any building annexed or affiliated to them, but not to monasteries for which a separate law should be passed.
The first article gives detailed definitions of the terms “church, sanctuary, pulpit, nave, baptistery, tower, church annex, community service building, retreat home, host bread bakery, sect leader, governor, sect, legal representative of the sect, and construction works that require licence.”
Number of Copts: point of contention
The most severe point of contention was Article 2 which stipulates that a given church size should be proportional to the number of Copts in the neighbourhood, with provision made for future population growth. It is an open secret that Egyptian governments have never publicised the numbers of Copts, so who was to determine this proportionality? Copts asked. More importantly, even if a few Christians needed a church, they had a constitutional right to it.
Magdy al-Agati, Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs insisted Article 2 did not restrict the construction of a church in the first place, but merely its size. “We cannot have a cathedral in a tiny village,” he said. Finally a compromise was reached by adding a confirmation in the minutes of the session that Article 2 was intended to mean that any number of Copts is entitled to build a church. The minutes are used as legal reference in resolving disputes.
Articles 3 states that the legal representative of a Christian sect is the one who submits an official request to the affiliated provincial governor to obtain a permit for building or demolishing a church, and cites the documents required. Article 4 defines the conditions under which an existing church may be demolished and a new one built in its place.
Article 5 sets a time limit in the processing of building applications. It was amended to state that provincial governors ‘must’, rather than ‘shall’, give a final say on the church building request within four months of submitting the application. If the request is rejected, the governor must give detailed reasons for the rejection.
Existing non-licensed churches now licensed
Article 6 states that none of the construction works cited in Articles 3 and 4 may be executed unless the relevant permits are issued by the building authorities. Article 7 of the law prohibits that any licensed church or building affiliated to it be used for any other purpose, even if prayers or religious rites are no longer held there.
Article 8 requires that sect leaders should present to a special committee a list of all the churches and affiliated buildings that need to be legalised within one year since the law is in force. Articles 9 and 10 state that all existing buildings where religious rites are held are considered licensed churches, also all existing buildings affiliated to churches are considered licensed, provided they are structurally sound.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the law generated a collective sigh of relief among Egyptians, Muslims as well as Christians. This does not apply, however, to the hardliners on both sides; the Christians would have liked a law with no limitations whatsoever, and the Muslims desired no law to ease the building of churches in the first place. “This is a Muslim country,” the Salafi MPs said. “Christians have more than their fair share of rights. They should realise they live in a Muslim-majority country; now with such a law they will turn wild.”
Once the law was approved in parliament, Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal cheered: “Congratulations! Long live the Crescent and the Cross!” MPs turned joyfully to congratulate one another, the word on every mouth was: “Muslims and Christians in Egypt are one hand.”
31 August 2016