Last year, I started 2020 with reviewing Egyptian issues that had not been resolved in 2019 and had thus to wait till 2020 for resolution. I start this year 2021 in the same manner, using a title similar to that of last year: Luggage we carry into the new year. I plan to review issues that have been suspended and need to be resolved in the coming year; such issues cover various concerns including the Coptic, political, economic, legislative, and others.
I begin with the Coptic concern which has been in part stable and displaying positive outcome of late, but in other parts suffering issues that require resolution. Major among these issues is the legalisation of unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated community service buildings.
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 many Copts 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 licence to build or restore a church or affiliated building, and includes provisions for legalising already existing unlicensed churches and Church affiliated buildings. Legality, however, hinges on proof of Church ownership of the building and land it is recited on, structural soundness and compliance with civil defence requirements, and the payment of any outstanding dues.
The Cabinet committee in charge of approving legalisation of the 3730 unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings that had applied for legality started its task in September 2017, according to the 2016 law passed exactly one year earlier. Until 29 December 2020, that is over the span of 39 months, the committee issued legality approvals for 1800 Church buildings in separate decisions that each included a new batch of approvals. The latest such batch was the 18th; it was issued on 29 December 2020 and listed 62 buildings approved for legality. This means that 48.25 per cent of the task of legalising 3730 churches and Church affiliated buildings was achieved in three-and-a-quarter years. At this rate, it would take the Cabinet committee 42 months, that is three years and nine months, to approve the remaining 1930 buildings; the full task of granting legality to 3730 buildings would have taken six years and nine months. To be sure, this span of time is widely protracted, given that the 2016 law was in the first place passed to ease worship for Egyptian Christians.
Another major issue of Coptic concern is the long awaited family law for Christians in Egypt. This law is a constitutional entitlement according to the third article of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, and has already been drafted by the three major Churches in Egypt: the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Last October, the draft was handed to the Cabinet for legal revision, after which it should go to parliament for discussion and passing into law. The law applies to all Christian sects in Egypt, thus places in the hands of the judiciary a document that comprehensively includes all the rules that govern the Christian family. It thus puts an end to disputes that involve parties belonging to different sects; in the absence of a unified law, courts in Egypt resorted to Islamic sharia to resolve such disputes.
The third major issue of Coptic concern that awaits resolution in 2021 is the case of the “lady of al-Karm”. It involves the utterly disgraceful incident that took place in May 2016 in the village of al-Karm in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, where an elderly Coptic woman was dragged out of her home into the street and stripped naked by a Muslim mob upon rumour that her son was having an illicit affair with a married Muslim woman. The three major suspects were taken to court and handed each a 10-year prison sentence in absentia in January 2020. In December 2020, however, an appeal by the defendants, who had handed themselves over to the police, won them an acquittal. This outraged Copts and Muslims alike. The following day, Egypt’s Public Prosecutor instructed his legal office to look into contesting the Appeals Court ruling which acquitted the three men.
I see this as a step in the direction of restoring dignity to the old woman. I hope that justice would be attained in a case the repercussions of which go far beyond the individual crime against an elderly Coptic woman; most Egyptians see it as a painful, unacceptable breach of their time honoured values.
The above was a review of the Coptic issues we carry into 2021. In upcoming articles, I plan to tackle issues of other concerns too, that await resolution in the new year.
8 January 2021