Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Christian MPs praise new church building law

Christian MPs said parliament’s approval of a new church building law was a progressive step after it was amended to meet their demands, reports Gamal Essam El-Din 

Al-Ahram Weekly

Most of Egypt’s Christian MPs announced this week that they welcomed parliament’s approval of a new church building law on 30 August after the government decided to amend it to meet their demands.

Margret Azer, deputy chairwoman of parliament’s Human Rights Committee and a Coptic MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Christian MPs voiced strong reservations when the law was first submitted by the government one month ago. “But after some articles of the law were amended in response to our demands, we decided to vote for it,” Azer said.

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Transitional Justice Magdi Al-Agati told reporters this week that under orders from Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, the law was amended to take reservations voiced by Christian MPs and leaders of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church into account. “When the Coptic Orthodox Church approved the amended articles, we decided to send it to parliament,” said Al-Agati.

Azer told the Weekly that “in its final form as approved by parliament, the new church building law represents a very progressive step. Some media outlets have claimed that Christian MPs rejected the law but this is not correct,” adding that she is personally happy with the new law, especially after Article II of the draft bill was amended by the government to meet the demands of Christian leaders.

“The new law states that a permit for building a church can be granted regardless of the number of local Christians in the affiliated neighbourhood,” said Azer, indicating that “the article was previously drafted to stipulate that the size of a church should conform to the number of local Christians in the affiliated neighbourhood.”

Azer also indicated that the article was also amended to state that a church can also include more than one altar, pulpit, baptising hall, and minaret. “This was also a very important amendment and because of this we decided to vote for the law in general,” said Azer.

The 13-article law gained the approval by a majority two-thirds of MPs, as stipulated in Article 121 of the constitution. “I think MPs decided to approve the law only after leaders of Egyptian churches signed off on it,” said Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal on 30 August, adding that “we could not approve a law rejected by the three churches — the Coptic, Catholic and Anglican”.

Abdel-Aal said he had high hopes that the law will build new bridges of confidence between Christians and Muslims and help foster national unity in Egypt.

Nadia Henry, a Coptic female MP who rejected the law in its draft form, also told reporters that she changed her position after the draft was amended.

Henry told reporters that she rejected the stipulation that there should be a certain number of Christians in a certain neighbourhood in order to get a permit for building a church. “This was discrimination against Christians and for this reason I rejected it at the beginning,” said Henry.

Henry said she was also happy that Article II was amended to give Christians the right to build churches in any neighbourhood regardless of their number. “The principle of citizenship states that even if there is one Christian in one neighbourhood, he or she can obtain a permit for building a church,” said Henry.

Henry told reporters that “the real enemy among us remains the existence of discrimination. The enemy that we are fighting together will sooner or later threaten the country’s social cohesion and fabric,” she said.

Emad Gad, political analyst and a Coptic MP with the Free Egyptians Party, also praised the amendments introduced to the new church building law. Gad, however, insisted that the law still imposes restrictions in the form of obliging Christians to obtain a permit from the affiliated provincial governor. “This is a big restriction and we all know that provincial governors grant permits only after they seek the approval of the security apparatus and this is not fair,” said Gad, also lamenting that “the law was amended after consultation only between the government and the Coptic Orthodox Church. There should have been consultation with secular Christians who do not take the Coptic Church as their representative,” said Gad.

Christian MPs also welcomed that it was a Muslim MP who decided to submit the first request to build a church after the new church building law was passed in parliament on 30 August.

Independent MP Al-Badri Ahmed Deif, a Muslim MP representing the Upper Egypt governorate of Assiut, took all by surprise this week when he decided to submit a request to build a church in a small village.

“I wanted it recorded in history that a Muslim was the first to submit a request for building a church in Egypt after the passing of the new landmark law,” Deif told reporters on Saturday.

“This request aims to build new bridges of confidence between Muslims and Christians and foster national unity in Egypt.”

Deif said that he had requested to build the church in the Assiut village of Salam (peace).

“Although this village was the birthplace of [the late Coptic Orthodox] Pope Shenouda III, it has never had a church,” said Deif.

Deif described Pope Shenouda as a historic leader of Coptic Christians.

“This great, moderate man was the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church for 41 years, during which he lived in the tumultuous eras of the late presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat, as well as former president Hosni Mubarak.”

“In spite of his central religious status over these four decades, he never used his influence to build a church in his home village.”

Deif added that more than 5,000 Christians live in the village of Salam and are in urgent need of a church.

“I want to build a church in Salam to help these Copts perform their religious duties as well as to immortalise the name of Pope Shenouda, the son of this village,” said Deif.

Deif said his request for a permit will be submitted to Assiut Governor Yasser Al-Dessouki in line with the new law.

The law states that local governors are required to respond to such requests within four months, and, if they reject the request, must give a clear explanation for their decision.

Deif’s initiative was warmly welcomed by Christian MPs, particularly Coptic Orthodox members.

Egypt’s parliament, elected early this year, has a record 39 (6.5 per cent) Christian members.

MP Azer told reporters that “Deif’s request is a very good initiative coming from a Muslim MP who belongs to a governorate that includes a large number of Coptic Christians.

“This initiative also reflects a high sense of national unity and this is what we hope for after the passing of the new church building law,” said Azer.

Azer also argued that the move by Deif should send a message to Islamist MPs — members of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party — who rejected the law on religious grounds.

“The Salafist Nour MPs claim that the law would weaken, rather than foster, national unity,” Azer said. “But MP Deif’s request refutes this claim and sends a different message, that this law can build new bridges of confidence between Muslims and Christians and contain sectarian tension, particularly in Upper Egypt.”

Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, sent a message of gratitude to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 1 September.

“This law comes to correct a 160-year-old mistake and to heal the wounds suffered in this long period for the sake of strengthening stability and citizenship,” Pope Tawadros said.

Magdi Malak, a Coptic MP from the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya, also highly welcomed Deif’s initiative.

“I know fellow MP Al-Badri Deif as an enlightened MP who strongly believes in national unity and citizenship and I really thank him for his great step,” said Malak, adding, “I think MP Deif’s initiative should encourage all Christian leaders to submit church building requests as long as they reflect real needs.”

Deif told reporters that he was sorry about the state of churches in the governorate of Assiut.

“Most of the churches there are in urgent need of restoration, as the buildings are dilapidated, and Christians, especially in Assiut, had never been able to obtain the permits necessary to restore them,” said Deif.

Deif also talked about the impact of arson attacks on churches in Upper Egypt that followed the 2013 dispersal of sit-ins protesting the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

“This caused a lot fear and havoc among Christians, and it became quite impossible to build or even renovate a church,” said Deif, who lauded the role of the Egyptian army in footing the bill to restore most of the churches attacked after Morsi’s ouster.

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