Date: August 24, 2016
By World Watch Monitor
Aug. 23, 2016
The Coptic Orthodox Church has voiced its dismay at amendments to a draft law that was hoped to put churches on a par with the country’s numerous mosques.
“The Church did not expect to see so many unacceptable amendments and impractical additions,” the country’s largest Christian body said in a prepared statement, declaring the proposed changes “a danger to Egypt’s national unity”.
“Due to the [added] complications and hurdles, those amendments do not consider Egyptian Christian citizens’ equal rights,” the 18 Aug. statement said.
The country’s House of Representatives was first presented with the draft law in mid-May. Holding its first session in January this year, it has been aiming to discuss and comment on a new priority legislation that would remove the many hurdles which often make building a church impossible.
Muslim places of worship, on the other hand, are routinely built without issues.
Similar draft laws have been tendered by representatives of civil society, the Cabinet, or Parliament several times before, including in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
The issue remains unresolved.
Eight points of contention
The Church’s disappointment stems from eight phrases in the proposed law, which a representative called “areas of ambiguity”.
“Article I defines a church as a ‘walled stand-alone building’, a condition which cannot be met in many villages,” news website Dot.Egypt quoted the source, who did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, as saying. “Article II makes the area of a proposed church contingent on ‘the need and number’ of local Christians. Who decides that Christians need or do not need a church in any given locality? As for ‘numbers’, they’ve always been contested, as the State inexplicably refuses to put a number to the Christian population.”
In the three-month period between May and July 2016, Copts suffered in excess of a dozen attacks, many due to rumours Christians were building a church that local Muslims deemed unnecessary.
According to draft amendments, a governor will decide on granting a church permit, “in consultation with relevant bodies”. Christians have long complained that giving security agencies a “veto-like” power over church-building and renovation has often resulted in projects being indefinitely put on hold.
Additionally, the proposed text leaves no room to appeal an adverse ruling, a local source said.
“Many executive bodies in Egypt are infiltrated by people who wish to Allah that churches were pulled down,” said career politician Mohammed Refaat el-Saeed. “This draft is again discriminatory. A civil state should not place one religion above another.”
“We know that certain State’s ‘sovereign bodies’ do not allow for Christians to be admitted to their workforce,” mainstream newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabei quoted the chairman of the left-leaning Tagammu Party’s Consultative Body as saying.
Egyptian Christians want any new legislation to scrap rules laid out by the 1856 Hamayoni Decree. Dating back to the last days of the Ottoman Caliphate, it still regulates the construction of churches in Egypt.
The Ottoman decree is based on legal discrimination against non-Muslims under Muslim rule. It traditionally draws from the Covenant of Umar, a pact imposed by the second Caliph of Islam. It specifies the terms to which Christians and Jews had to submit, in order to safeguard their existence in their newly conquered lands.
In more recent decades, Salafism – which seeks to strictly implement the teachings of Islam’s “founding fathers” – has influenced much of the Muslim community’s thinking, including in areas relating to the status of women and minorities.
A YouTube video featuring Egyptian Salafist cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Naquib (a professor of Islamic studies), has more recently reasserted that all four schools of Sunni Muslim theology forbid the building of churches.
“It is not permissible to build churches in the lands of Islam. This is the unanimous agreement among all the Four Schools. It is the received position handed down to us,” al-Naquib said.