Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Long wait by Copts is over

The government has begun discussing a bill on the construction and renovation of churches before submitting it to parliament, reports Michael Adel

Al-Ahram Weekly

During the past few months, Egypt has experienced several outbreaks of sectarian violence triggered by rumours that Coptic Christians intended to build churches on certain plots of land in some villages in Minya and Beni Sweif. In response, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the See of St Marks Tawadros II and a number of Coptic Orthodox Bishops on Thursday last week.

According to Minister of Legal Affairs Magdi Al-Agati, it became possible to discuss formulating a bill on the construction and reparation of churches in light of the consensus that was reached between the government and ecclesiastic representatives. Al-Agati added that all outstanding differences with the church over the law were resolved and that it was possible to reach a solution over the codification of the churches that had been built without a license.

“The law will prevent the eruption of problems over the construction of churches for the next hundred years,” Al-Agati said, stressing that representatives of the three churches in Egypt — the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches — signed the bill after approving its final draft which consists of only seven articles. Al-Agati noted that Father Paula, bishop of Tanta, signed the draft during a visit to the Ministry of Legal Affairs on Monday.

In a press conference, Al-Agati said that he would submit the draft bill signed by the representatives of the three churches to Prime Minister Sherif Ismail so that it could be put to discussion in the cabinet. Afterwards, the bill will be sent to the State Council for review preparatory to its submission to the legislature.

According to Al-Agati, the draft law states that a governor concerned must issue a decision within a maximum of four months on an application for a license to construct a church. He added that the law did not stipulate restrictions on heightening churches, but noted that the provisions regarding height stipulated in Construction Law No 119 of 2008 would apply. The draft bill does not stipulate a particular distance between any two churches.

Bishop Paula, who heads the Coptic Church’s public relations committee, revealed some more details regarding the law. He said that all articles and terms that the church had opposed had been deleted from the draft bill. For example, a provision designating the area of the foundations of the church was eliminated from the second article. Also scratched was another article that required an application for a permit for any athletic or cultural activity sponsored by the church whether on church grounds or elsewhere. In addition, he said, articles nine through 17, pertaining to all churches built before the law, were removed.

As for articles one through seven, they contain the definitions regarding church structures and their annexes. They give the religious community the right to designate the necessary area for the structure and they set a limit of four months for governors to approve a church construction permit.

Bishop Paula explained that the second half of article two (regarding the size of the area of the church) had been deleted on the grounds of the principle that a ministry should not be allowed to restrict the right of a religious community to determine the space it deems necessary to serve its parishioners. He also explained that articles eight through 17, which affected churches already constructed including those built without a permit, had been omitted. However, he noted that an alternative article eight was introduced. This is the last article of the bill on the construction of churches and it contains no impediment. It states that all buildings in which Christian rites of worship and religious services are preformed at the time the law goes into effect shall be licensed as churches following the verification of the soundness of their construction on the basis of a report submitted by a construction engineering consultant. The article adds that the religious community’s legal representative must submit the relevant documentation containing the necessary architectural information on the church structures to the governor within six months after the law goes into effect. The performance of religious rites and services in those churches and their annexes may not be prohibited or interrupted. 

The law introduced a definition of the term “retreat” which, Bishop Paula said, included places for the performance or practice of spiritual, cultural and recreational activities. He stressed that the bill eliminated the need for the cabinet to issue an executive law to accompany the bill. “All parties and agencies will be bound solely by the provisions of the law,” he said, adding that the draft law did not contain a provision that might entail the intervention of security agencies in the construction of churches.

Bishop Paula noted that the intervention of President Al-Sisi, following his meeting with Pope Tawadros II and other ecclesiastic leaders last week, was instrumental in accelerating an agreement over outstanding differences over the law. “The [church representatives’] visit to the presidential palace was a watershed. What could not be done in a year was accomplished in the space of two days.”

The new law, as drafted, will require deeds of ownership of the land on which a proposed church is to be constructed. However, as the bishop of Tanta pointed out, in most Egyptian villages such titles of land ownership simply do not exist. Most properties are very old and most landowners have never been interested or felt compelled to go through the documentation processes to officially register ownership and procure deeds. He also noted that the land on which a proposed church is to be constructed must comply with certain governorate and district regulator codes such as that requiring the construction of an outer wall around the property. But as a certain amount of space needs to separate that outer wall from an edifice, this could consume a considerable chunk of the area for the foundations of the church itself.

The news of the breakthrough regarding the draft law elicited positive reactions among Coptic lawmakers in parliament. MP Emad Gad said that modifications made to the draft and which were unanimously approved by representatives of the three churches have made it possible to produce an equitable law that meets the aspirations of the MPs. The recent bill has resolved the most important objections to its predecessors, Gad stressed. He welcomed in particular the omission of any wording that made a governor’s approval of a church construction permit contingent on authorisation from “concerned agencies”, by which is meant security agencies, and the deletion of a provision that had stated that unlicensed places that had been used for prayer would not be recognised until after five years.

MP Sylvia Nabil of the Free Egyptians Party welcomed the government-ecclesiastic consensus over the law as a “positive step”, noting that agreement among those addressed by the law will facilitate discussion of its articles in the parliament and should accelerate the measures to approve it in the current parliamentary session.

MP Margaret Azer, deputy for the Committee on Human Rights, agreed that the consensus between the government and the church will inevitably be reflected in parliament which seeks, above all she said, to end sectarian strife and anchor the principle of equal citizenship.

Counsellor Gamil Halim, representative of the Catholic Church in Egypt, also discussed the salient points regarding the new draft bill that has been approved by the three churches. Of its eight articles, the first seven pertain to the construction of new churches and repairing existing ones. The eighth concerns regulating the status of churches that already exists at the time the law goes into effect. Halim welcomed the wording of the provisions of the article which recognises existing structures that have been used for Christian services as churches on the condition of their architectural soundness and which prohibits any obstruction to church services during the period in which the structural soundness is determined.

On the ratio of churches to the proportion of Coptic inhabitants in a district, Halim said that the matter was addressed in the first article of the law which states that the head of a parish should state the number of Coptic inhabitants to be served by the church in his application for a construction permit. He added a detail regarding the four-month period during which a governor must respond to an application for a building permit. He said that in the event a governor did not respond during that stipulated period or rejected an application, the legal representative of the community may appeal to the Administrative Court in the Council of State.

The church construction question in Egypt dates back to a decree issued by the Ottoman Sultan in 1856 in accordance with which the sultan retained the right to issue permits for the construction and reparation of churches. Under former president Hosni Mubarak, presidential Decree 13 of 1998 transferred jurisdiction of authorising renovations of churches to the governors but kept the authorisation for the construction of new churches under the president’s jurisdiction. With this decree, Christians and Muslims were treated equally under a single law for the renovation of houses of worship: local administration Law 43 of 1979. Still, under the construction law issued in 1976, the need to obtain authorisation from security agencies remained an obstacle to any approval of construction or renovation. Forty-eight churches in Egypt remain closed due to security reasons.

In December 1999, another presidential decree — No 453 for that year — revoked the governors’ jurisdiction over the authorising renovations of houses of worship and transferred it to their more natural authority: the departments for planning and construction at the municipal level.

In August 2016, the government and the three churches of Egypt announced their approval of the final draft of the bill of law for the construction and renovation of churches. The bill will soon be submitted to the legislature to be voted into law in this session, in accordance with the provisions of the country’s new constitution.

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