As we stand on the threshold of a new parliamentary round, it is of utter significance to rally support behind the longed-for unified law for building places of worship. For three consecutive rounds, the bill remained shelved, even though it was approved by Parliament’s Proposals and Complaints Committee. The government declined to include it in its legislative plan for the coming period. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) held its fifth annual conference without any reference to the bill. This situation begs the question of whether those three official bodies realise the necessity of passing the bill in order to avoid the eruption of so-called ‘sectarian’ problems ever so often.
Following is a collection of the opinions expressed by MPs and Shura Council members recently surveyed by Watani in the course of its quest to rally support for the bill.
Independent MP Mustafa Bakri said there was a dire need to remove any obstacles that may hinder the building of places of worship, particularly where Copts are concerned. “It is incredible that repairing a toilet in a church requires the approval of a governor or a security official,” he said. “Such problems must be dealt with through a law legalising the freedom of building places of worship. The latest constitutional amendments stressed full citizenship rights for all and implied that all Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike, are on equal footing. If the bill for a unified law for building places of worship is discussed in the Parliament, I will vote for it,” he assured.
Iskandar Ghattas, NDP MP, said that there already exists a relevant document concerned with building places of worship, but has been ignored by all Egyptian governments since the 1970s. That, he said, is the report by the Oteifi parliamentary committee, which was drawn following the notorious Khanka sectarian event in 1972. The report, which had been approved by Parliament, called for unifying rules governing building places of worship in order to ward off probable sectarian tension. “Now, 36 years on,” Dr Ghattas said, “nothing has been done, and extremist groups continue to fuel tensions that may be ruinous to society. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) proposed a bill for unifying rules for building places of worship but, sorrowfully, no move was taken to put the proposed law into affect.”
Shura Council member Sheikh Ismail al-Deftar said that Islam has granted non-Muslims full freedom to perform religious rites and build places of worship. “In this respect,” he said, “Non-Muslims have the same rights and duties as Muslims. Nothing, therefore, should prevent regulations that apply to all indiscriminately. There is a dire need to spread tolerance and remove obstacles preventing equal rights in terms of building places of worship.”
Wadie Fikry Ghali of the Shura Council said that the legislative agenda of the NDP did not include the unified law for building places of worship. “But I confirm that the party is interested in the law,” Dr Ghali said, “and will choose the proper time to discuss it in the upcoming parliamentary round. The law will put an end to sectarian tensions associated with building churches. I intend to vote for the bill because it is vital for the stability of our homeland.”
A recent declaration by Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab may give cause for cautious optimism. In reply to a query by MP Ibtisam Habib on the conspicuous absence of the bill from Parliament’s agenda, Dr Shehab said that the bill is currently on the agenda of the Cabinet, and is being studied as a prelude to presenting it to Parliament. But this should in no way dissuade us from pressing ahead with our campaign for the law that has been placed on hold long enough.
16 November 2008