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Copts, Muslims cautiously eye draft law meant to ease tensions

A unified law that intends to help ease sectarianism and promote religious equality by putting churches on a par with mosques can be soon enacted, but Muslims and Copts have their reservations

Dina Samak , Thursday 9 Jun 2011
Orthodox church
Riot police stand guard near the Orthodox church where Saturday's bomb attacks took place in Alexandria, during Orthodox Christmas mass, January 6 (Photo: Reuters)
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A unified building code is seen by both Muslim and Christian activists as an important step to stand for human rights and against sectarianism and the violence that has erupted around the issue of constructing new churches.

During the last months hundreds of Copts organised a sit-in outside the state TV headquarters, Maspero, in Cairo, after sectarian violence erupted in Imbaba. Their top demand was the unified law, which the interim government promised on 12 May to fulfil within 30 days.

Now that the 30 days are almost upon us and the draft law has been released, the debate is on.

Mamdouh Ismail, Muslim Brotherhood member of the bar syndicate, filed with other lawyers a complaint to the prosecutor-general against Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, accusing him of drafting a law that "does not abide by the constitution and measures of justice that are espoused by Islamic sharia [law]." This is significant because, technically, Egypt is an Islamic state.

He also describes the soon-to-be-announced draft law as a threat to Egypt’s national unity and social peace.

"We consider the draft to be very alarming," says Ismail, "it contains an article that, if enacted, will fuel sectarian violence - not control it." The article Ismail considers a threat sets the criteria for establishing new houses of worship.

"How can we give a permit to build a house of worship based on distance [maximum one church or mosque per 1km2, according to the new draft], while international human law uses the population rate," explains Ismail in his complaint.

"In high population areas, one mosque per square kilometre is not enough for prayers and this means that Muslims will end up praying in the streets."

Likewise, the Church does not seem to be happy with many articles in the draft law, but for different reasons.

Serba Moun, the priest of Imbaba Church, the site of recent violence, described it as "a complicated law - and not unified."

According to Moun, it still does not tear down the barriers against building churches, like the many draft laws that Parliament also refused to pass.

The three major Egyptian churches (Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic) emphasised that the new draft should be handed to them for discussion before it is approved. They have many reservations about it, as Naguib Gibrael, a lawyer close to the Coptic Orthodox Church, explains:

"Article six of the draft reads that the minister of local development is the one who gives churches building permits, which is then sent for approval by the governor. This will take us back to square one" says Gibrael, who argues that the process should be simplified so as applicants merely offer notification of their plans - not seek approval.

The Coptic Church has another bone to pick with the law. A few days before Sharaf approved the draft it was let out that the unified law puts both mosques and churches under the supervision of the governmental central auditing agency. The church rejected such a step, insisting that its only income is from donations and that the church already has a strict financial monitoring system in place.

A few days ago the cabinet spokesman, Ahmed Assaman, stated that government supervision even over the church's financial committees was suggested in the draft law.

The new law is set to replace the Hamayouni Decree, which is a draconian, biased law dating back to the Ottomon Empire that regulated church construction and maintenance and does not apply to mosques.

According to the draft that was published by Al-Ahram daily newspaper, the new law will give the governors the right to pass permits for the establishment, demolishing or maintenance of any worship house after getting authority from local development ministry.

All requests should receive an answer within three months after filing the application. If the applicant does not receive an answer within that time frame, the application is considered approved.

Every denial should be answered with a justified reason.

Furthermore, every application has to contain a written approval from the ministry of religious endowment or the representative from the recognised religious sect.

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