Egypt's Christians hopeful for loosened restrictions on church building

Chaïmaa Abdel-Hamid, Monday 10 Nov 2014

A new draft law overseeing church construction - long a troubled process - will be passed to the new parliament

The Coptic Orthodx Church
The Coptic Orthodx Church of Alexandria (Photo: Reuters)

Two weeks ago, the three main Egyptian churches – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant – drafted the proposition of a law concerning the construction of churches.

Can this law – long-awaited law by the Christian community – finally push the current situation to change? Representatives of churches and Christian communities seem to be optimistic for the first time.

Gamal Habib, a legal consultant to the Coptic Catholic Church, explains that churches based the draft law on the country's new constitution, ratified in early 2014, which stipulates that a new law for building churches in Egypt will be discussed when parliament's first legislative session.

"According to the constitution, this law needs to be approved," Habib says.

Indeed, article 235 of the 2014 constitution says that "parliament, in its first session, has to issue a law related to the regulation of the construction and restoration of churches, in order to guarantee that Christians get the freedom to practice their religious rites."

Hence, the new Egyptian parliament – expected to be voted in by the end of the year – will have to examine the new draft law, which aims to loosen the limits on building churches in Egypt.

According to Habib, the prepared text mainly gives a precise definition of the church and its form, which varies according to each church's doctrine. The document also describes buildings attached to churches and the services that take place inside them, like the establishment of a medical centre or nursery.

The draft also suggests that the criteria used for the construction of churches be aligned with those of the construction of private edifices. Furthermore, the text hopes that litigations be cancelled regarding the ownership of land on which churches have to be built.

The law, if approved, will force authorities to give approval or refusal of a request to build a church within 60 days. The absence of a response from the government will be considered a green light for the beginning of construction.

Construction by decree

Several drafts have been presented to successive governments, the most recent in 2013, but all have been in vain. Until now, no law has governed the construction of churches. The legislative dispositions, in effect since 1934, make it extremely difficult to build churches in Egypt. A new church has to be authorised by a presidential decree, which is not issued until approval is given by the interior ministry. The ministry further adds 10 rules that are called, not without irony, The Ten Commandments by Christian churches.

These rules ban the construction of churches near schools, canals, governmental buildings, railway tracks and residential areas for security reasons. In many cases, the rigid application of these rules has prevented the construction of churches in cities and villages where Copts live, especially rural areas in Upper Egypt. In addition, there are bureaucratic annoyances. As a result, given that the permits are difficult to obtain, several villages and neighborhood don't have churches, and many others are built without a permit.

According to Monsef Soliman, a member of the communitarian committee representing the Orthodox Church, "We have been waiting for the approval of such a law for long years. Restrictions have always been put on the Christian community regarding the construction of churches. We could wait between 15 and 16 years in order to get one approval, and it would end up being a refusal. It is time to face all these problems through the law."

In July, officials at the ministry of transitional justice gathered the representatives of different churches and Christian communities in order to task them with drafting concrete propositions to overcome all problems related to the construction of churches.

This week, the minister also declared the formation of a committee of Coptic figures and representatives of certain ministries, especially the ministries of interior and justice, to discuss the draft, in line with the propositions in the draft law.

Just the law: insufficient

Any development is very important but – experts say – not enough in the face of challenges that are still to be raised.

Coptic thinker Gamal Assaad suggests that it's necessary to have an awareness campaign in the media alongside the law's approval.

"We have a big problem of mentality in Egypt, maybe even a problem of education, that makes a good number of radical Muslims refuse the construction of churches, thinking that they are against the principles of Islam. It is necessary to attempt to change the mentalities through real national dialogue, in order to be able to apply this law. Otherwise, it would be useless to draft it. It is time to consolidate the concept of citizenship," he says.

* A version of this article was first published by Al-Ahram's French weekly Hebdo on 5 November

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