On 19 October 2020, the Egyptian Cabinet spokesperson announced that Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly had presided over the Cabinet committee charged with looking into the status of unlicensed churches to grant them legality according to the 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches. The Cabinet spokesperson said that, during the meeting, the committee reviewed the decisions taken in the previous meeting, and approved legalisation of a new batch of churches and Church affiliated community service buildings comprising 45 churches and 55 service buildings. The 100 newly approved legalisations are a portion of 3730 cases that had officially applied for legality; they represent the 17th batch of approvals since the committee started its work on 28 September 2017, and they bring the total number of approvals up to 1738 cases. Legalisation becomes final only when the approved buildings comply with provisions of structural soundness and civil defence conditions, and pay the required dues.
Until the Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed in Egypt in September 2016, it was next to impossible for Copts to obtain official licence to build or restore a church, leading me to term these times “the crisis era”. Copts, who direly needed churches in view of the growing congregation and declining conditions of existing churches, resorted to circumventing the law and building churches without licence. The 2016 law stipulates a straightforward, time limited legal procedure to obtaining license to build or restore a church or affiliated building, and includes provisions for legalising already existing unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings.
With the most recent batch of approved legalisations, the Cabinet committee has in 37 months granted legality approvals to 47 per cent of the total 3730 cases that had applied for legality before the deadline set by the Law for Building and Restoring Churches. This means that the Cabinet committee has completed around half its task in the span of some three years; does this imply that we need another three years for the committee to approve legalisation of the full number of cases demanding legality? I hope the committee would hasten to reach its goal the soonest possible, since relief from the old burden of unlicensed churches would put an end to the “crisis era”. The 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches now promises that the process for licensing the building, expansion, restoration, or renovation of a church or affiliated building has become simple and well defined.
Since the early stages of the Cabinet committee’s work I have closely followed up and keenly reported on its progress. I was put off by the slow rate at which the committee was moving, resulting in meagre batches of approvals granted over extended periods of time. I got into the habit that, every time the Cabinet issued a new batch of approvals to legalise a number of churches and service buildings, I would calculate the number of approvals granted as a percentage of the total number required versus the time taken to approve that percentage. Every time, my mind involuntarily went to the Egyptian folk wisdom: “Oh God who eases difficulties! So much is over; so little lies ahead”. But the situation called for me to reiterate it with a twist: “So little is over, so much lies ahead”.
However, when the Cabinet committee issued a 15th batch of approvals last May in the height of the coronavirus crisis, I wrote highly commending the move. My editorial dated 10 May 2020 read: “Given the current coronavirus outbreak and the priority health issues have rightly taken over any and all other issues, I did not expect the Cabinet to carry on looking into the legality of unlicensed churches. With the State mobilising all its capacities to fight COVID-19 in Egypt, I was considerate of the possibility of freezing the activity of the Cabinet committee charged with legalising churches till some future date when the coronavirus crisis would have abated… it would not have been right to harp on the issue of legalising churches and affiliated buildings before Egypt could safely overcome the COVID-19 challenge.”
Today, some six months later, Egypt has emerged out of the COVID-19 bottleneck and its aftermath. The numbers of infected cases in most parts of Egypt are consistently on the decline, and the world is on the verge of finding a safe and effective vaccine against coronavirus, and a treatment for COVID-19. It has been three months since the government has approved regulations to get the wheels of the economy rolling, and to resume a closer to normal daily life activities in Egypt. Accordingly, I believe it is now time to raise our expectations anew regarding the pace at which the legalisation of unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings is proceeding. We can aspire that the Cabinet committee would swiftly conclude looking into the remaining 53 per cent of cases that had applied for legality so that, once and for all, there would be no unlicensed churches or Church service buildings waiting to be legalised.
30 October 2020