No unified code for churches and mosques

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 16 Oct 2011

Christian and Muslim representatives fail to agree on the basis for a unified code governing the construction of houses of worship in Egypt

St Mark
A soldier stands guard near the Saint Mary church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on 8 May in the Giza neighbourhood of Imbaba (Photo: Reuters)
A week after the massacre of over 20 Copts during a protest over attacks on churches, Copts are still looking for a legal framework for the construction and protection of their churches.

A Christian-Muslim committee with high level clergy and intellectuals failed Sunday to pass a draft for the long debated unified code for the construction of houses of worship. Beit Al-Aila (Family House), with the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and Pope Shenouda, the Orthodox patriarch, in attendance, only went as far recommending that a law to "regulate the construction of churches" be drafted and adopted.

The committee, which met at the headquarters of Al-Azhar, called on Christian authorities in Egypt to provide recommendations for a law to regulate the construction of churches, in order for it to replace the current Byzantine code which denies Copts the right to build churches except with a decree of the head of state or his representative.

No specific framework was offered. However, an informed source told Ahram Online that the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) has initiated discussions with Pope Shenouda, who missed today's meeting, to sound out his views on the matter.

The Egyptian Orthodox Church represents the vast majority of Egyptian Christians. In turn, Copts constitute some five to 10 per cent of the total population, depending on the count that is sometimes made to exclude or include migrating Copts, and depending on whether the figures are offered by state officials or sources of the Coptic Church.

Meanwhile, Beit Al-Aila called for all "licensed churches" closed down for a variety of reasons, mostly the desperate need for reconstruction, to be reopened. Other churches that lack the required license should be examined case by case to allow for the regulation of their operation, recommended the same meeting this afternoon.

According to sources who spoke to Ahram Online, the rejection of a unified building code for houses of worship is essentially on account of the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayyeb. El-Tayyeb insists that there can be no regulation on the construction of mosques, which he says are frequented five times a day by worshipers, unlike the case for churches.

The grand sheikh, however, is of the opinion that churches should be built "in line with the needs" of the Christian community. This means that churches should only be built in villages that have a sizeable Christian community.

The Orthodox Church also also had some reservations on the draft of a unified code, especially in relation to the inadequate penalty it stipulates for attacks on or enforced demolition of churches. It also objects to the imprisonment penalty that the draft law stipulates for priests who expand construction of churches without extra permits, in view of the "sensitivity of imprisoning clergymen".

According to press statements made by Mustafa El-Fiqi, a member of Beit Al-Aila (Family House), this afternoon's meeting thought it was best to separate the regulation of churches and mosques, to avoid compounding an already volatile situation.

Sources close to Pope Shenouda said that the Orthodox patriarch is willing to consent to a "fair set of regulations for the construction and reconstruction of churches, irrespective of the issue of mosques altogether".

"We are not in a position to ask for equal rights and we really don’t mind how many mosques there are; we are just hoping we could have some fair regulations for the construction and reconstruction of churches," the source said on condition of anonymity.

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