Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Congregational divides

A long awaited law regulating the building of churches triggered controversy to erupt in the Coptic community, writes Michael Adel

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In advance of the anticipated vote by MPs on a draft law regulating the construction of churches many Coptic Christians took to social networking sites to express their support for the bill. Others, however, were concerned at some of the law’s provisions and a group of mostly young Copts has launched a petition opposed to the draft. The “rejection” petition lists a number of points its signatories find unacceptable. They include the draft law’s stipulation that a wall be constructed around the property of a church. The petition argues that available areas of land in villages are small and that a wall, together with the required space between it and the actual structure, will unduly restrict the size of churches. The campaigners also oppose the provision that the concentration of Christians in any specific area be a central criterion in determining the need for a church — “as though the Copts are subjects of a foreign state rather than Egyptian citizens” — and the fact that in its current draft the law allows the governor and, by extension, the security authorities, to have the ultimate say over whether a church can or cannot be built.

The proposed church construction law follows a spate of sectarian crises which prompted President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to meet with Pope Tawadros II and senior Coptic bishops. It was after his last meeting with church officials that Al-Sisi pledged to do what he could to accelerate the passage of the desired law.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail then met with Minster of State for Legal Affairs Magdi Al-Agati to discuss the main points of a bill that Al-Agati claimed would “prevent the eruption of problems over the construction of churches for the next 100 years”.

Representatives of the three major churches in Egypt — Coptic, Catholic and Anglican — signalled their approval of the draft only for controversy to erupt in the Coptic community over the substance of some of the articles, compelling Pope Tawadros to convene an emergency synod.

The synod came out against the initial draft, making its approval conditional on the inclusion of changes formulated by the three churches. An amended law was then sent to the cabinet for approval. This is the text parliament was due to discuss.

Father Boulos, Bishop of Tanta and chairman of the Coptic Church’s Public Relations Committee, says President Al-Sisi’s intervention was instrumental in hastening agreement over the controversial articles in the law.

Andre Zaki, head of the Anglican community in Egypt, dismisses calls on the part of some Coptic activists to oppose the bill. “I challenge those who reject the law to collect a million signatures. If they succeed, I’ll join them. The new law is in favour of the Copts.”

Zaki expressed his gratitude to all the parties that contributed to promoting the amendment of the bill. MPs, rights activists and civil society organisations that lobbied for changes to be made were “constructive factors”, he said.

Catholic Church representative Gamil Halim said he was “satisfied” with the work of the three Egyptian churches in amending the law and thanked MPs “who will review and discuss this bill and pass it during this session” in advance for “any additions they deem will favour the welfare of the churches”.

Freddie Al-Bayadi, a member of the General Evangelical Council, takes a less sanguine view. That it has taken over two years to pass the law shows that government thought hard about how to place restrictions on the building of churches, he says.

Al-Bayadi told journalists that “the churches had to make extraordinary efforts to reduce these restrictions as much as possible whereas there should be no restrictions to rights at all”. While some unacceptable articles had been amended in the latest draft of the law articles that were “extremely dangerous” remained, he said, most notably the clause which gives the final say to “the executive authority and sovereign agencies [a euphemism for the security authorities] which sends us back to square one”.

Al-Bayadi also takes exception with the second article of the law which links the size of the plot on which a church can be built to the number of Christians living in the area. The wording of the article is so flexible as to arouse suspicion, he says, arguing that the difficulties in identifying the precise number of Christians living in specific areas, and the denominations to which they belong, effectively leaves planning consent to the whims of the executive authorities.

Coptic writer and political activist Kamal Zakher believes the law, as it stands, will soon be challenged legally on the grounds that it violates international conventions to which Egypt is a state party.

Legal expert Hani Sabri finds articles 8 to 10 so loosely worded as to be ambiguous. In their current form, he says, they could be used to close churches. He cites, for example, the stipulation that churches “adhere to the rules and specifications that are comprised in the affairs of the defence of the state.” “What is meant by this?” he asks. “Does it refer to national security considerations or to the security agencies?”

“Does it mean that if an extremist says, ‘We don’t want these churches and their annexes’ and a problem ensues then the security agencies could step in and close down the churches? The terms and wording in these articles need to be tightened up.”

Another article states that for existing church buildings to be approved religious services must be being held in them when the law goes into effect. “What,” asks Sabri, “will happen to churches that have been temporarily closed down for various reasons?”

He also objects to the stipulation that the legal representative of the various churches must commission architectural surveys of existing houses of worship and submit these to the governor. In turn, the governor is required to forward the surveys to a ministerial committee which then has the right to grant or withhold the license for an existing church.

Sabri believes future problems could be averted by incorporating articles eight to ten in a single clause reading “Churches and their annexes and prayer halls that exist on the date that this law goes into effect will be deemed legally licensed. These places will be defined by lists submitted by the relevant religious communities to the office of the prime minister”.

The second article of the law, which states that the designated area of a church and its annexes be “commensurate with the number and needs of the Christian citizens in the area” in which the proposed church is to be constructed has also come under fire for failing to take into consideration population growth rates.

Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali argues the criticisms levelled against the bill are based on flimsy premises. “The government’s prepared law on the construction of Christian houses of worship was approved by the three Egyptian churches. It will also win the approval of the whole of Egyptian society,” she wrote on her official Facebook page. She stressed that the new law will regulate the construction of new churches and the status of existing churches in accordance with the constitution. She added that the law defined a church as a structure that contained a prayer hall, a sanctuary, a pulpit, a steeple, a baptismal room and a Eucharist room and that is topped by domes and crosses. It also states that this edifice cannot be altered to serve any other purpose.

MP Suzie Adly Nashed insists that while the current draft of the law may have some unsatisfactory articles it is a great improvement on its 15 predecessors. She described the final draft as “a good law based on a consensus between the government and the Church.”

Nashed nonetheless voiced reservations similar to those of Sabri, adding that many MPs had urged for the second article to be omitted.

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