Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Landmark church building law

A new law regulating the construction of churches is passed by MPs after heated debate, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

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reoger
Al-Ahram Weekly

After a stormy debate on Tuesday MPs approved a new law which seeks to make it easier for Christians to build and restore churches. But while some MPs, including speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, hailed the bill as progressive, others insisted the new legislation was cosmetic and could inflame, rather than contain, sectarian tensions.

Speaker Abdel-Aal said the government had worked strenuously to ensure the new church building law met with the approval of all Christian denominations, especially the Coptic Orthodox Church. “This law was drafted after 10 months of consultations with representatives from the Coptic, Catholic and Anglican churches and was revised in record time by the State Council,” said Abdel-Aal.

Abdel-Aal heralded “the approval of this law as a historic step, a new signal that Egypt is a land where the crescent and the cross always embrace one another.”

“History will record that this was the parliament that had the courage to pass a law building new bridges of confidence between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. I am from Upper Egypt where a lot of Christians live and I know how much they suffer when it comes to obtaining a permit to build a church,” said Abdel-Aal.

A 70-page report prepared by the parliamentary committees on legislation, religion, housing, local administration and cultural affairs hailed the law as a watershed moment in the regulation of the construction and restoration of churches. “The law helps Christians build churches and exercise their religious rites in a free and much easier way,” said the report.

The report said building enough churches for worshippers had become a pressing problem which was compounded during the year-long government of the Muslim Brotherhood (2012-2013). “Under the Brotherhood the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya was attacked. The then president Mohamed Morsi refused to condemn the assaults,” said the report.

The new law, the report continued, addresses two issues: how Christians obtain permits to build new churches, and how buildings currently being used as churches can be licensed as such.

Article 1 of the law defines the terms “church” and “religious leader”. Articles 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 stipulate that the size of a church be determined by the number of Christians living in the vicinity, and set out the procedures the legal representative of a Christian denomination must follow to obtain a permit from the provincial governors for the building, renovation or demolition of a church. The original draft of Article 5 was amended to state that provincial governors must reply to church building requests within four months. If the request is rejected, provincial governors are obliged to give detailed reasons for the refusal.

The remaining articles — 8, 9 and 10 — state that all existing churches, their annexes and affiliated places of worship are to be considered licensed for Christian rituals as long as they are structurally sound. Article 10 states that a government committee will be formed to assess the soundness of existing churches. The committee will report back within 12 months.

While Coptic, Catholic and Anglican church leaders welcomed the new legislation Christian MPs were sharply divided during the parliamentary debate. Al-Ahram political analyst Emad Gad, a Coptic member of the Free Egyptians Party, said the new legislation “still imposes difficult conditions, such as stipulating the size of any new church be in proportion with the number and need of whichever denomination in particular neighbourhoods”.

Minister of Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Magdi Al-Agati insists Article 2 does not impose any restrictions on Christians. “It simply states that we can’t build a huge cathedral in a tiny village and that the size of a church must reflect the number of Christians in the area,” said Al-Agati.

Al-Agati’s response did not go down well with Coptic MP Magdi Polis who argued that “a lot of mosques have been built on desert land where few Muslims live.”

The law was heavily criticised by MPs from the Salafist Nour Party, the only Islamist force in parliament.

Nour Party spokesman Ahmed Khalil argued that the law violates the 2014 constitution which declares in Article 2 that Islam is the religion of the state of Egypt, Arabic its official language, and that the principles of Islamic Sharia the major source of legislation.

Al-Agati responded by pointing out that Article 235 of the constitution is clear in stating that parliament must issue a law on the construction and restoration of churches in its first session and the legislation must guarantee Christians’ rights to freely worship.

Khalil was not to be deterred. He told MPs “the number of Christians in Egypt is not enough to justify a new law”.

“The fact is that the number of Muslims — and not Christians — is increasing. They are the ones who need more mosques,” insisted Khalil. He went on to express fears that “the law could inflame, rather than contain, sectarian tension between Muslims and Christians, especially in Upper Egypt.”

Nour Party MPs voted against the law, arguing that “Christians face no problems building churches or performing their religious duties.”

Coptic MP Nadia Henry also criticised the law, though from a very different perspective. It was, she said, a “political farce” that codifies the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Its impact on the ground, she argues, would be nonexistent. “The same obstacles that were always there remain,” said Henry.

Coptic MP Margaret Azer took issue with Henry’s analysis. She said the law contained many improvements on earlier legislation though it was far from perfect. She was particularly critical of Article 2, arguing that “every denomination has the right to a place of worship even if the congregation includes just one member.”

Despite objections, the law was approved by two-thirds of MPs.

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