Egypt’s three main Christian denominations – Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic – have agreed on the final draft of a proposed new church construction and restoration law. According to the bill, there will no longer be a requirement for the president to give personal approval for the construction of a new church building. It will only be necessary to get a licence from the local governor. Furthermore, any request for a licence must be responded to within a four-month deadline and each densely populated area in Egypt must have its own church.
The news – which was announced last Monday (1 August) by Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Magdi al-Agati – comes amidst an escalation in violence against Christians in Egypt, some of which has been provoked by rumours that churches are undergoing construction. The bill is now due to be discussed at a cabinet meeting, before then going to parliament for final approval.
Currently the construction of churches is strictly regulated in Egypt under laws dating back to 1856 when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, according to which Christians had to obtain the sultan’s permission to build new churches.
This was further tightened in 1934 when the Deputy Interior Minister, al-Ezabi Pasha, issued a decree with ten further conditions that must be met before permission could even be applied for. These conditions, which still apply, include gaining permission from neighbouring Muslims and the fact that a church cannot be located near a mosque or a Muslim shrine. Applications for permission to build churches have often taken many years to be considered and after the long wait the answer could often be “no”.
There are many areas of Egypt without church buildings and Christians are therefore obliged to travel long distances to worship, which is particularly difficult for those who are very poor.
A Coptic Orthodox bishop praised the government’s willingness to accept objections to the bill raised by church representatives. “Many articles were removed and others amended according to our wishes,” he said. Amongst the amendments was the addition of an article which, according to the bishop, “will protect the current churches including those which had not obtained all due permits before the law is issued.” The new bill would also allow the judiciary to settle disputes arising from applications being denied.
The new bill builds upon the progress made in 2005 when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak issued a decree easing restrictions on repairs to church buildings. This change has since meant that basic repairs and renovations can be made subject to written notice being given to the local authorities without the need for approval, whilst major renovations require permission of local governors and not the president.
This latest step forward reflects the support shown to Egypt’s Christians by President al-Sisi since coming to power in 2013. He has been vocal in condemning attacks on Christians, ordered the military to re-build churches that have been burned down by Islamists, and granted churches land in new cities on which to build houses of worship. However, the president has encountered criticism for not doing enough to ensure this supportive attitude filters down to the local authorities, especially in rural areas, who have often been weak in supporting Christians and addressing the injustices against them.
However, some Egyptian Christians have expressed the need for caution concerning the draft bill. Criticism has been raised in some quarters over the vague wording of the law and the way it could be open to interpretation by the local authorities, and because of this there is concern over whether the proposed changes will in fact make any difference at the local level.