Constitution committee eliminates all barriers to building churches in Egypt

Passant Darwish , Sunday 27 Oct 2013

Committee votes to lift restrictions on church building, postpones decision on article stipulating 'absolute freedom of belief' for all citizens

A minaret of a mosque is seen beside a church in Cairo February 23, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt's 50-member committee tasked with amending the suspended 2012 constitution adopted on Sunday a transitional article that will cancel existing restrictions regulating the building of new churches.

According to Ahram Arabic news website, the committee also initially adopted an article [47] which stipulates "absolute freedom of belief" for Egyptian citizens and endows the state with the responsibility to ensure free practice of religion.

However, under pressure from representatives of Egypt's highest Sunni authority Al-Azhar, which has demanded that freedom of religion be restricted to the three monotheistic beliefs, the committee opted to postpone its vote on article 47 until Monday.

Sources at the meeting told Ahram that representatives of the church, who have until now strongly supported complete freedom of religion, sided with Al-Azhar's objection.

Christians, who make up 10 to15 percent of Egypt's 85 million, need special presidential permits in order to build or renovate churches in Egypt.

Supporters of equal rights for all citizens have long demanded the freedom to build and renovate churches without restraint in order to ensure parity between Egypt's religions. 

Islamic extremists have attacked tens of churches, destroying many, in the past 15 years.

Following the police's bloody dispersal of two sit-ins supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi, churches and Christian homes and businesses have been attacked nationwide.

Amnesty International, a London-based rights group, says that upwards of 200 Christian-owned properties have been attacked and 43 churches torched or seriously damaged across the country since Morsi's ouster.

None of Egypt's previous constitutions included a law to regulate the building of mosques.

Cairo, the country's capital, is known as the "City of a thousand minarets" for its extensive ancient Islamic architecture. 

Articles regarding religion have been especially contentious during the committee's drafting session.

Article 47, allowing for complete freedom of religion, is controversial because it could be extended to other Egyptian minorities, such as Egypt's Baha'is and Shia Muslims.

Shias and Baha'is are not allowed to practice their beliefs in public and have suffered sectarian attacks by Sunni extremists over the years. 

In June, shortly before Morsi's ouster, an angry mob led by Salafist sheikhs torched and attacked houses of Shias in the small village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Giza governorate, killing four citizens, including a prominent Shia figure.

Last Sunday, five people were killed and at least 17 others injured after unknown assailants opened fire at a wedding ceremony held at a church in Cairo's suburb of Al-Warraq.

The Islamist-drafted 2012 constitution, which is currently being amended by the 50-member committee, did not grant equal rights to Christians and failed to recognise non-Sunni Muslims.

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