Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Church building stirs controversy

A draft law regulating the construction and restoration of churches receives a stormy reception in parliament, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Church building stirs controversy
Church building stirs controversy
Al-Ahram Weekly

Monday’s celebration of the Assumption of Mary was held against a growing chorus of complaints by Coptic Christians that the government is fudging legislation that is supposed to free the construction of churches from bureaucratic red tape. 

In parliament MPs attacked the new government-drafted law seeking to regulate the construction and renovation of churches for placing too many obstacles in the way of church building.

MPs expressed particular concern over Article 3 of the draft law which would make provincial governors the sole authority able to issue permits to build or renovate churches.

Emad Gad, Al-Ahram political analyst and a parliamentary representative of the Free Egyptians Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that provincial governors make the issuing of permits conditional on obtaining prior approval from the Interior Ministry. “This means that you must first petition the security apparatus before you can build or renovate a church,” said Gad.

The government must move quickly to implement Article 235 of the constitution which requires parliament to issue a law regulating the construction and restoration of churches in its first session, due to end this month, says Gad.

Margaret Azer, Coptic MP and deputy chairman of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, told the Weekly she had been taken aback by the government-drafted law. “We received assurances from the government that the draft law would be a progressive step, yet some of its articles are not just impractical, they are unacceptable.”

“Article 1 of the draft law imposes a number of crippling conditions. It basically requires Christians to obtain the same official permit to repair a church that they would need if one were being built from scratch.”

On 18 August the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement in which it warned the law as currently drafted posed a threat to national unity.

“The proposed draft of the long awaited church building law shows scant respect for Copts as Egyptian citizens,” said the statement. It added that the text presented by the government should be taken as an initial draft that must be amended following a dialogue with the relevant officials.

Pope Tawadros was due to hold a meeting with Christian leaders on Wednesday to discuss the law. “We hope that the final draft will take the concerns expressed by Christian churches into consideration,” said the statement.

“The Orthodox Church’s statement was an attempt to alert the government to the urgent need to respond to the demands of the Christian community,” insists Azer. She argued that a law that allows Christians to exercise their religious rites without unnecessary bureaucratic interference would help stem the growing tide of sectarian strife.

“A large number of incidents have erupted because of conflicts between Christians and Muslims over the building of churches,” said Azer. “Oddly, moderate Islam, which does not mind at all that Christians build churches to exercise their religious rituals in the same way Muslims do, appears rather more tolerant than the government is in addressing the concerns of Christians.”

MP Ayman Abed, head of the parliamentary group of the Free Egyptians Party, says the party supports the Coptic Orthodox Church’s demands the law be amended to phase out bureaucratic obstacles to the building of churches.

“We submitted our own proposals for regulating the construction of churches,” says Abed. “If provincial governors are to be mandated to issue permits for the construction of churches their powers need to be made conditional. They must be obliged to reply to applications within four months and in the absence of a reply within this time limit the application should automatically be considered successful. If a request is rejected detailed reasons for the refusal must be provided.”

The 11-article draft law was first announced on 2 August.

Article 1 of the draft designates any building where Christian services are held as a “licensed church”. Article 2 stipulates new churches may be constructed only if there is a pressing local need, in which case “the size of the church should be proportional to the number of Christians in the neighbourhood.”

Article 3 allows leaders of Christian sects recognised by the state to submit building requests to local governors. Article 4 defines the circumstances in which existing churches can be demolished, while Article 5 sets a time limit in the processing of building applications. In line with the recommendations made by the Free Egyptians Party it states that “the governor… must answer the request within four months and if the request is rejected must give detailed reasons for the refusal”. Less reassuring, perhaps, is the provision governors must do so “in coordination with concerned agencies”.

Article 7 prevents the change of use of any building licensed to be a church. Article 8 requires that any building licensed to be used as a place of Christian worship be structurally sound.

Minister of Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Magdi Al-Agati told journalists that the text of the law discussed by the cabinet in its 17 August meeting should be viewed as an initial draft. 

“The government is keen to forge a consensus with all Egyptian churches before finalising the text,” said Al-Agati.

He dismissed suggestions the initial draft posed a threat to national unity. “It is progressive in as much as it phases out some of the many hurdles in the way of building churches in Egypt. The clause compelling governors to reply to requests within four months is a very positive step.”

Gad agrees, though he warns this period could be open to indefinite extension given “governors will be forced to seek the approval of other state agencies, including the security apparatus, before giving a final answer.” 

Christians make up an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt’s population of 91 million. Official figures in 2011 revealed Egypt has 2,869 churches and 108,000 mosques.

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