Government under pressure to address Coptic grievances

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 9 Jan 2011

The terrorist attack on the Two Saints Church brought the government under immense pressure to issue a new law regulating the construction of worship places in Egypt

A Coptic Christian woman prays with a rosary during Christmas Eve mass at a Coptic church in Jdeideh, in Beirut, 6 January 2011. (Reuters)

One of the main ramifications of the bloody New Year's Eve attack on the Two Saints Church in Alexandria is that it put pressure on the government and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to address Coptic grievances. Topping this list of grievances is the current law regulating the construction of places of worship, which Copts demand be amended to facilitate the construction of churches.

Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, believes that NDP governments have long ignored the demand of Copts regarding church construction. "As a result," Rashwan explains, "this issue remained like a thorn in the side of Copts, for which they believe they are not treated equally to Muslims."

However, several government officials have expressed hopes that "the thorny issue of constructing worship places – including churches and mosques – will be tackled."

Following his meeting with Pope Shenouda, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church on Friday, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told reporters that the Cabinet, in its most recent meeting on Monday, had extensively discussed the issue of facilitating the construction of churches. In Nazif's words, "as all know, there is a law regulating the construction of worship places in general, but one should not expect that all obstacles imposed in this respect would be completely lifted."

Nazif argued that "We place obstacles on the construction of mosques and churches, but at the same time we should make sure every now and then that there are enough worship places to meet the needs of Muslims and Christians."

Nazif also disclosed that the cabinet reviewed new proposals to lift obstacles to the construction of worship places, but said it was too early to announce the measures which will be adopted.

Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour strongly denied that the People's Assembly is against discussing a new unified law regulating the construction of both mosques and churches. "All must know that the Constitution firmly defends religious freedoms and we in the People's Assembly highly welcome debating a new law that grants new freedoms and assistance to the construction of worship places," Sorour said after meeting with Pope Shenouda.

Joining forces with Nazif and Sorour, Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali, a Copt, told the French magazine of Le Figaro that the government is currently drafting a new unified law regulating the construction of worship places in general, and not just churches. Ghali, who is widely believed to be very close to Gamal Mubarak, the president's younger son and chairman of the NDP's influential policies committee, also said that there are many of NDP members and MPs who are in favour of instituting a certain parliamentary seats' quota for Copts, similar to the existing policy which reserves seats for women.

In the Shura Council, the upper consultative house, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab explained that when President Mubarak came to power in 1981, he decided that provincial governors will be responsible for licensing the construction of churches. "Before this, it was just the president of the republic who would approve or deny the construction of churches," said Shehab.

He also indicated that "provincial governors have offered a lot of facilities and licenses, the result of which has been that the number of churches built during Mubarak's 30-year presidency is far greater than the number of churches built since Christianity came to Egypt."

However, some politicians such as Rifaat El-Said, chairman of the leftist Tagammu party, believe that most of the statements of government officials about worship places, especially churches, are mere rhetoric. "The problem with NDP officials is that they are very good in stressing national unity, but when it comes to taking concrete steps towards tackling Coptic grievances, they procrastinate until they receive strict orders from President Mubarak himself," charged El-Said.

Short link: