Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Church building covenant

The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has raised hopes among Egyptian Copts that a unified law governing the building of houses of worship will be promulgated, writes Michael Adel

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Al-Ahram Weekly

For years, the late Pope Shenouda III sought the passage of legislation regulating the building and repair of churches. A detailed proposal was submitted to the People’s Assembly and Shura Council during the Mubarak era, but the issue remained on the back burner.

Now the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches in Egypt have formed a legal committee, headed by Kamal Shawqi, representative of the Orthodox Church Meli Council, an advisory board comprising laity, to oversee the drafting of new legislative proposals that will hopefully be submitted to the government within two weeks.

Church representatives — Counsellor Munsef Soleiman for the Orthodox Church, Counsellor Gameel Halim for the Catholic Church and Farid Al-Bayadi and Rifaat Fathi for the Anglican Church — have agreed that governors should be given the authority to issue construction permits.

Under the proposed scheme, governorates would have 60 days to respond to a building permit application. Should this period elapse without a response, the application would be considered approved.

The committee opposes linking the construction of churches to population density, arguing that there are no accurate statistics available on the number of Christians in Egypt. It is also pushing for the inclusion of existing buildings, constructed without a permit, that have been used as houses of worship for a period of more than a year.

The draft law is expected to contain 20 articles at most. The text will be revised by the Ministry of Transitional Justice. According to a church official close to the ongoing discussions, Egypt’s churches are keen to reach an agreement with the government that allows them to have some input into any amendments to the draft that parliament may seek to introduce.

It is not only the construction of new churches that is hampered by the current system. According to Fathy Rifaat, secretary general of the Anglican Church, even building a washroom inside an existing church is impossible under existing, “arbitrary” regulations. The draft will include an article guaranteeing churches the right to make repairs as long as they do not increase the area of land occupied by the church. Another article will allow closed churches to reopen.

The committee wants to see building and repair permit applications streamlined and placed in the hands of a single agency, be it the governorate or municipality. Under the present system, says former People’s Assembly member Ihab Ramzi, church officials must first obtain the approval of residents and security agencies before constructing a church. In effect, the building and repair of churches still falls under the 19-century Hamayouni decree, and imposes many restrictions.

According to Rifaat Fikri, chairman of the Anglican church committee for media and publication, the initial draft will also define what constitutes a church. There will be no minimum requirement on the size of any building, taking into account the needs of congregations living in small villages and hamlets. Some people may only have a small patch of land available for their house of worship.

“We hope the draft law is approved by the incoming parliament,” says Fikri. “It is necessary to revive the sense of shared citizenship among Egyptians. The two revolutions were fought in order to establish the principle of citizenship and a government that serves all Egyptians.”

Mina Thabet, who heads the religious freedoms file at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, believes the draft unified law on the construction of churches needs to be the subject of a broad social dialogue that allows all interested Christians to take part in formulating the draft.

There is also a need, argues Thabet, for the new law to include guarantees that ensure citizens are able to avail themselves of their rights to freedom of belief and worship without hindrance. There should also be a clause that allows officials responsible for enforcing the law to be held to account should they fail in their duty to prevent attacks on church buildings.

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