Less than a week after the new law facilitating the building of churches was approved by Egypt’s parliament last week, a Muslim MP has taken the initiative of submitting the first request to build a new church in his native governorate of Assiut in Upper Egypt.
"I wanted it recorded in history that a Muslim was the first to submit a request for building a church in Egypt after the passing of the new landmark law," the independent MP, El-Badri Ahmed Deif, told reporters Saturday.
"This request aims to build new bridges of confidence between Muslims and Christians and foster national unity in Egypt."
The government says the long-awaited law has made it much easier for anyone looking to build or restore a church in the country, getting rid of much of the red tape and obstacles faced by Christians who for decades have not enjoyed the same rights as Muslims in building or maintaining their places of worship.
Deif said that he has requested to build the church in the Assiut village of Salam (Peace).
"Although this village was the birthplace of [the late Coptic Orthodox] Pope Shenouda III, it has never had a church," said Deif.
Deif described Pope Shenouda as a historic leader of Coptic Christians.
"This great, moderate man was the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church for 41 years, during which he lived in the tumultuous eras of late presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat, as well as former president Hosni Mubarak."
“In spite of his central religious status over these four decades, he never used his influence to build a church in his home village.”
Deif added that more than 5,000 Christians live in the village of Salam and that they are in urgent need of a church.
"I want to build a church in Salam to help these Copts perform their religious duties as well as to immortalise the name of Pope Shenouda, the son of this village," said Deif.
Deif said his request for a permit will be submitted to governor of Assiut Yasser El-Dessouki in line with the new law.
The law states that local governors are required to respond to such requests within four months, and, if they deny the request, must give a clear explanation for their decision.
Deif's initiative was warmly welcomed by Christian MPs, particularly Coptic Orthodox members.
Egypt’s parliament, elected late last year, has a record 39 (6.5 percent) Christian members.
Coptic MP Margaret Azer, deputy chairwoman of parliament's human rights committee, told reporters that “Deif's request is a very good initiative from a Muslim MP who belongs to a governorate that includes a large number of Coptic Christians.”
"This initiative also reflects a high sense of national unity and this is what we hope for after the passing of the new church building law," said Azer.
Azer also argued that the move by Deif should send a message to Islamist MPs – members of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party – who rejected the law on religious grounds.
“The Salafist Nour MPs claimed that the law would weaken, rather than foster, national unity,” Azer said. “But MP Deif's request now comes to refute this claim and send a different message that this law can build new bridges of confidence between Muslims and Christians and contain sectarian tension, particularly in Upper Egypt.”
Azer told Ahram Online that “the new church building law represents a very progressive step.”
“Some media outlets have claimed that Christian MPs rejected this law, but this is not correct,” said Azer, stating that she is personally happy with the new law, especially after Article 2 of the draft bill was amended by the government to meet the demands of Christian leaders.
"The new law states that the size of a new church and its annexes should conform to the size and the needs of local Christians as well as the rate of population growth in any one area, [rather than merely the size of local Christian populations as previously suggested in the draft version of Article 2]; and that a church can also include more than one altar, forum, baptising hall, and minaret."
Azer said that this last-minute amendment was wholeheartedly welcomed by all Christian MPs.
“When this law was passed on 30 August, the day was like a national festival where Muslim and Christian MPs were one hand,” said Azer.
"I highly appreciate the role of Muslim MPs who said this law reflects the principle of citizenship."
The law was, however, critisised by two prominent Christian MPs, political analyst Emad Gad and rights activist Nadia Henry, who criticised the provision giving provincial governors the final say on church building requests.
Henry, who voted in favor of the bill, said in a Facebook post that she "strongly believes that there are loopholes in the law [that still make it difficult to build churches] .”
She explained to media outlets "I initially opposed the law but voted for as I realised it would be approved by the majority of MPs."
“The real enemy among us remains the existence of discrimination; the enemy that we are fighting together will sooner or later threaten the country’s social cohesion and fabric," she added.
On the other hand, Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, sent a message of thanks to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on the first of September.
"This law comes to correct a 160-year-old mistake and to heal the wounds suffered in this long period for the sake of strengthening stability and citizenship," Pope Tawadros said.
Magdi Malak, a Coptic MP from the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya, also highly welcomed Deif's initiative.
"I know fellow MP El-Badri Deif as an enlightened MP who strongly believes in national unity and citizenship and I really thank him for his great step," said Malak, adding that "I think MP Deif's initiative should encourage all Christian leaders to submit church building requests as long as they reflect real needs."
Deif told reporters that he is sorry about the state of churches in the governorate of Assiut.
"Most of the churches there are in urgent need for restoration, as the buildings are dilapidated, and Christians, especially in Assiut, had never been able to obtain the permits necessary to restore them," said Deif.
Deif also talked about the impact of the arson attacks on churches in Upper Egypt that followed the 2013 dispersal of sit-ins protesting the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
"This caused a lot fear and havoc among Christians, and it became quite impossible to build or even renovate a church," said Deif, who lauded the role of the Egyptian army in footing the bill of restoring most of the churches attacked after Morsi's ouster.