Egypt's Christians may have to wait longer for church building reform as bill stalls

Menna Alaa El-Din , Tuesday 23 Aug 2016

Woman praying
File Photo: A Coptic Christian attends the Coptic mass prayers for the Egyptians beheaded in Libya, at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, February 17, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Egyptian Christians are tensely awaiting the passage of a governmental bill that would end decades-long obstacles to the restoration and building of churches in Egypt.

However, although 14 versions of the draft laws were discussed over the past two years with representatives of the country's three churches, Christians might have to wait even longer.

The cabinet has once again failed to present a convincing bill to church representatives, as the latest version includes amendments that the Coptic Orthodox Church – which represents 90 percent of the country's nine million-plus Christians – deems inacceptable.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail met with Pope Tawadros on Monday night and said the government is in "constant coordination" with the Church to finalise the bill, which then would be reviewed and voted on by parliament.

On Thursday, the spokesperson of the Coptic Orthodox Church criticised the Egyptian cabinet in an official statement, stressing that the Church was "surprised by unacceptable amendments" and "impractical additions" made by the government to the draft bill.

It remains unclear what amendments the government has added to the bill, which had previously been approved by the three Christian denominations, as Church representatives have not disclosed information about the additions, stressing that the issue was still subject to talks.

The Coptic Church did say, however, that the amendments "pose a threat to Egyptian national unity due to the twists and obstacles that such amendments hold."

The church spokesman said that the draft bill was still under discussion, adding that it needs a high sense of patriotism" for the sake of the country’s future and the safety of its unity.

The Evangelical Church also issued a statement on Thursday stating that it was following the discussion on the draft law.

Although the Evangelical Church did not directly criticise the new amendments, it did say that it hoped the government would take into consideration the concerns expressed by Egyptian churches.

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdy El-Agaty commented in press statements on the Coptic Church’s announcements, saying that the amendments by the cabinet do not "threaten national unity" as claimed by the Coptic Church.

"We are keen on Egyptian national unity, it is the main engine leading us in the steps that we are taking," El-Agaty said.

He did not provide information on the amendments, stressing that the government was still holding discussions about the bill with involved parties.

The deputy head of the human rights committee in the Egyptian parliament, Margaret Azer, criticised the cabinet in earlier press statements for backtracking on what had been agreed on earlier between the cabinet and the churches by adding a new article to the eight-article bill.

Azer pointed out that the Church was well aware of concerns of national interest that the state may have, but that it has the right to review amendments made by the government that could cause paralysis in the issuing of the law.

On Friday, the Coordinating Group on Citizenship and Civil Forces – which includes intellectuals, human rights advocates and several Coptic activists – said that Church representatives were being "pressured" to accept a bill that would "lead to the return of crisis."

The group called for the government to hold "societal discussions" on the law, even if this would lead to the postponing of the law being issued till the next parliamentary session.

"If the government insists on moving forward with what it wants despite what many forces have warned, the Egyptian president should interfere to suspend the issue as part of his responsibility to protect the unity of the nation and the rights of the people," the statement by the group concluded.

Some experts speculate that the amendments added by the government state that security officials must sign off on the building of churches, likely due to concerns regarding the possible reactions from ultra-conservative Islamist groups if a more liberal bill passes.

“We are facing a real challenge. Does the state want to be a secular state as it stipulates in its constitution or does it want to be a religious one that seeks to satisfy a certain religious body or group like the Salafists?” researcher Ishak Ibrahim from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said to Ahram Online.

“We want a clear answer,” he added.

Ibrahim believes that “if the state wants the bill to pass, it will pass – as [the government] is the one currently holding all powers – without concern over any response by Salafists or any Islamist dissent,” adding that the issue was not about the bill itself, but rather the extent to which the state is ready to defend the rights of Copts guaranteed by the constitution.

“The Church is in an unenviable position, especially since it had previously approved a first draft of the bill despite growing criticism from both Muslims and Christians of its articles.

Now, the Church can no longer compromise,” Ibrahim said.

Government vs parliament

A new round of conflict is also looming as MPs introduce another bill also addressing the issue of church construction, just as the cabinet’s bill is set to be discussed by the House of Representatives.

In late July, the liberal Free Egyptians Party said it was pushing for a draft proposal on the construction of churches.

Article 235 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution states that the House of Representatives shall issue a law regulating the building and renovating of churches in its first legislative term after the constitution comes into effect, guaranteeing Christians the freedom to practice their religious rituals.

The Free Egyptians Party released a draft bill of 18 articles in July, separate from the cabinet’s current nine-article bill.

The bill drafted by the party and a number of individual parliamentary members was sent to a joint committee that includes a number of parliamentary committees, including the constitutional and legislative affairs, religion and endowments, and housing committees.

According to the party’s spokesman, Shehab Waguih, the party’s MPs were not aware of the government’s efforts to submit a different bill on the issue.

Parliamentary affairs minister El-Agaty said in press statements last week that the governmental bill would be up for discussion in the House on 21 August, but the new conflict has stalled progress and no discussion has taken place.

According to a leaked copy of the pre-amendment government bill, seven out of the eight articles address the issue of the building and reconstruction of churches, while one article addresses the legalisation-related adjustments to already established churches.

The governmental bill stipulates a four-month deadline for local governors to respond to any request for a church building licence.

The Free Egyptians Party’s proposed bill – which would also give governors the authority to approve or reject the building of churches – adds that that if the governor does not respond to the request within four months, the request is considered automatically approved.

The party's bill adds that a legal representative of the Church would have the right to appeal the rejection of a building request in accordance with State Council laws, including punishing through jail terms anyone who obstructs the building process. It is not clear if this right to appeal is granted in the government's bill.

Officials have clashed over which is the superior bill, now with reports that the liberal Wafd Party, the country’s oldest political party, is pushing for their own law.

“Anyone coming forward with a bill would say his is better, but if you ask me personally, ours is definitely better,” MP Alaa Abed, the head of the Free Egyptian Party’s parliamentary bloc, told Ahram Online.

Abed says that a “practice of democracy” will decide the issue, with the bills being introduced for discussion and voting on the House floor.

He suggested that a merging of the two draft bills may take place in the House when the issue is put to a vote.

“Whether PMs decide to vote on our bill or the government’s, there will be no grudge. It is all a matter of democracy,” he adds.

He asserted that 90 percent of churches had violations, adding that the main point behind the bill – whether the government’s or his party’s – is to regulate the building and renovation process, with Church officials knowing their rights and duties.

“We want a state of law and order, and we aim through our bill to see an improved relationship between churches and state apparatuses,” Abed says.

Both the party and the cabinet have said that their representatives have held “societal discussions” with Coptic representatives over their two bills, with the government’s pre-amendment bill signed off on by Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical church representatives two weeks ago.

The future of the law is so far unclear, with growing divisions and conflicts muddying the waters.

Prior to the current conflict over the government bill, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II had said in press statements that successive governments have, since regulations introduced in 1934, adopted "crippling" conditions for church construction, but stated that he hopes the new law will streamline the process.

Due to the restrictions, some congregations have been forced to build unlicensed churches or carry out their religious practices in buildings that have not been designated for religious use.

Earlier this month, the US State Department has hailed the efforts of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to protect the Christians rights though admitting they still face enormous challenges.

"The Copts in Egypt still face significant challenges. However, President al-Sisi has…taken a very public position that the Copt community needs to be protected," David Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom said in its 2015 annual report.

El-Sisi's paid two visits to Christmas mass since he came to office in 2014 and boosted the efforts to rebuild many churches that were destroyed in the violence following the 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

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