After four hours of stormy debate, Egypt’s parliament has approved on Tuesday a landmark law aimed at making it easier for Christians to build and restore churches.
The law gained the approval by a majority two-thirds of MPs, as stipulated in Article 121 of the constitution.
"I think MPs decided to approve this law only after leaders of Egyptian churches signed off on it," said parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al, adding that "we could not approve a law that is rejected by the three churches – the Coptic, Catholic and Anglican."
Abdel-Al said he has high hopes that the law will build new bridges of confidence between Christians and Muslims and help foster national unity in Egypt.
The 13-article law was approved by most political parties and independent MPs, though it did not go down well with the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party – the only Islamist force in parliament – and with some liberal Coptic MPs, including political analyst Emad Gad and activist Nadia Henry.
Other Coptic MPs took a middle ground, arguing that "the law is a progressive step, even though it still includes some negative points."
Margaret Azer, a Coptic MP and deputy chairman of the human rights committee, said "we hope these negative points will be eliminated in the future, but in any case this law is a good step."
Most of the criticism levelled by Coptic MPs against the law focused on Article 2, which stipulates that the size of a new church must go in proportion with the number of Christians in a certain neighbourhood.
The article also states that the rates of population growth must be taken into account.
Gad described this stipulation as "restrictive and will still make it hard for Christians to build churches easily."
Henry, however, sharply attacked the law, calling it “a political farce” and describing it as the law of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi that was “imposed on Christians.”
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati said "article two by no means imposes restrictions, it just simply states that we cannot build a cathedral in a tiny village."
Henry insisted, however, that even if there is one Christian in a certain neighbourhood, he or she should have the right to get a permit for building a church.
The Islamist Nour Party rejected the law altogether, claiming that it “violates Egypt’s 2014 constitution, which states in Article 2 that Islam is the religion of the state of Egypt, Arabic is its official language, and the principles of Islamic Sharia are the major source of legislation."
"As you see, the constitution said Islam, not Christianity, is the religion of the state of Egypt," the statement said.
The party also argued that Christians are not in need of a new church building law.
"Under the current conditions, Christians enjoy fully their rights as Egyptians and they exercise their religious duties in a free way," said the party's statement.
However, minister El-Agati said that "the law goes in line with Article 235 of the constitution, which stipulates that a new law on the construction and restoration of churches must be passed in parliament's first session and in a way that guarantees Christians the right to exercise their religious duties freely."
A report prepared by parliament's committees on legislative, religious, housing, local administrative and cultural affairs argued that Christians have suffered from many of legislative obstacles standing in the way of building churches since 1856.
"When the Muslim Brotherhood reached power in 2013, Christians saw their worst times," said the report, adding that "not only did the Orthodox cathedral in Abassiya [east Cairo] face unprecedented assaults, but then-president Mohamed Morsi took no action to safeguard the cathedral from these attacks."
"The attacks against the cathedral continued for one hour, with attackers pelting the building with rocks and gunshots, and this showed that the [conditions surrounding the] building of churches in Egypt should find a solution," said the report.
The report said the law addresses two main issues; making the construction and restoration of churches easier through a number of clear-cut procedures and dates, and retroactively granting licences to operate for all existing churches and Christian places of worship as long as they are structurally safe.
A government committee will be formed to review the conditions of existing Christian places of worship and legalise within a year their status.
"Until this committee finalises its job, Christians can exercise their rituals freely in all existing churches and places of worship," said the article.
The law's articles were approved as drafted by the government, though the committees that prepared the report on the law made one amendment to Article 5; stating that provincial governors "must" give a final say - rather than "should" - on requests to build a church within four months.