The construction of churches: Do we really look for an answer?

Mohamed Abul Ghar
Monday 1 Aug 2016

In the coming few days, MPs will discuss a draft law on the construction and reconstruction of churches. The constitution stipulates that this bill has to be passed in the first legislative season

Adopting a democratic and fair law that ends discrimination among citizens will certainly open the door for the social cohesion that the state and citizens aspire to.

However, there is scepticism that this law might be obstructed or if adopted it would fall short of attending to the core problems that we are currently facing.

The problem at hand is old and complex while the answers could be easy and possible. This, however, requires perception and will. Answers will be impossible in the case some lack determination, or if there is no true understanding of what this problem is really about and what it could lead to.

First, we have to establish that all Christians, Copts and others, are as eligible to equal rights as Muslim citizens. This is a matter that is decided by the constitution in very explicit text that stipulates in black and white that all Egyptians are equal.

Copts are not an ethnic minority; they are just as Egyptian as could be and they are no different from any other Egyptian.

A poor Coptic peasant is not any different from a poor Muslim peasant: they dress alike, they talk alike and unfortunately they equally violate the law and subject their daughters to the shared horrible practice of female genital mutilation, with no discrimination between a Muslim and Copt.

This is too the case of Copts and Muslims who live in the cities: they live in the same buildings, work at the same places and shop at the same markets. You would only discriminate one from another, sometimes and not always, by their names – something that was not easy to identify during the liberal years when all Egyptians opted away from names with any religious identification, unlike the case now.

As such, I think it is silly and superficial to talk either of a minority or of the "two elements" of society.

However, we have to admit that in real life the constitution and laws are more often ignored than observed. Copts are denied access, for example, to many jobs in the state. Moreover, Copts are also denied employment with some private businesses. This instigated some Coptic entrepreneurs to exclusively employ Copts.

Discrimination is prevailing when it comes to government bodies. Obviously, it is essentially a class-based discrimination whereby the poor are not treated in the same way like the economically privileged.

This is also the case for Copts, especially if we are talking about a poor Copt from Upper Egypt because there we are talking about the worst treatment possible that anyone gets in, say, a civil registrar office.

Of course, Copts had a moment of joy when the president visited them during the Christmas Mass, for two consecutive years. They thought, for the most part, that this visit indicated a new policy from the state towards its Coptic citizens and that a new phase of citizenship was coming around the corner.

Unfortunately, this proved not to be true. And it simply turned out that the visits were mere gestures of courtesy from a president who wished to express appreciation for the Copts for having supported him.

But in real life Egypt, the smallest ranking police officer would not hesitate to shrug Copts if he happened to think that this is what needs to be done according to his social creed.

The presidential visits are only significant if they allow for a positive impact to be sensed by Copts living in the remotest parts of the country. This we did not see in the village of Minya where a Coptic lady was aggressively assaulted, with no serious reprimands to follow.

I am convinced that the "police state" is responsible for the exacerbation of the problem as it insists on not bringing assailants to justice and not applying the law in what harms the image of the state to a great extent.

The state cannot count on out of court settlement thoroughly. These kind of settlements are only efficient if there is a clear understanding that the law would be applied and that wrong doers would be brought to justice. This of course requires honest police investigation and interrogation, something that I dare say is far from being customary.

The sign that the state sends, intentionally or otherwise, is exactly the opposite when the state turns blind eyes to an official at the Ministry of the Education who denies the assignment of a Coptic headmistress on a religion basis or to a school headmaster that denies enrollment of Copts in his school. All of these are unconstitutional acts and they should be firmly prohibited by the law.

Obviously, laws are not enough in and of themselves. There is a desperate need for a well-conceived media campaign that should inform all Egyptians, including those living in the remotest and most challenged areas, of the need for equal rights among all Egyptians, faith aside.  This is not happening.

Instead, many Egyptians are left to follow the discriminatory views of the clergy in the smallest mosques or the Salafi youth who simply incite strife, more often than not under the eyes and ears of low ranking state officials, like mayors, who are actually generally sympathetic to radical calls and supportive of discriminatory acts.

During the work of the constitution amending committee in the autumn of 2013, I proposed to a small group of the committee, including Amr Moussa, Gaber Nassar and Mona Zulfacar, to include a constitutional article on the right to build churches. They agreed and we drafted an article that I discussed with the Grand Mufti twice, seeking his approval for this simple amendment.

I later took the article to Father Paula who also agreed to the draft. The article was adopted.

It is now up to legislators who had reached their seats in many parts with the support of Copts to issue the relevant laws to make sure that this article is put into practice.

If an adequate law is adopted then things would be much easier for everyone – not just Copts but also the state. However, if the law that will be passed falls short of honouring the principle included in the constitution then we would be up for some rough times.

The matter is really very simple. Copts are part of this nation and they have the right to practice their faith without any hindrance.

The legislators attending to the law need to remember that Egypt housed churches long before it had its first mosque.

Christians are part of the Egyptian people that has become clearly opinionated after the January Revolution. I am convinced that Copts will no longer accept to be second class citizens. This is something that the state has to realise.

I also think that the security bodies have to realise that the Coptic clergy who are criticising the attacks against Copts could not do less under the pressure of the angry masses.

The sooner the state realises the radical changes induced to this society as a result of the 25 January Revolution, the better for everyone.

The writer is head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

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