The nearly 150-year-old restrictions put into place by the Ottoman Caliphate in Egypt on the construction of churches and enforced by successive Egyptian governments have been relaxed with the approval of the promised church construction law. The Parliament of Egypt, after four hours of contentious debate on Aug 30, approved the bill with a two-thirds majority of MPs voting in favor, the number required for the law to pass.
The restrictions before the new law was passed were nearly insurmountable , requiring Christian communities to gain approval from not only the President but the local Muslim community. Additionally, Christians couldn’t build near mosques, schools, village canals, railways, government offices, government facilities, or between residential areas. Even the display of the Holy Cross on a Church could be rejected.
The new law empowers provincial governors to approve church building and renovation permits, previously the domain of security services. It also required decisions to be made within 4 months of application. In the past, permits have been held up indefinitely by security services, often due to pressure from fundamentalists in Egypt that could cause political trouble. The report also included a provision allowing unregistered churches to operate freely until a government committee can determine whether they are structurally sound and, if so, retroactively grant them a license to operate. Still, the law is not as relaxed as the 2001 Mosque construction laws enacted in Egypt, and some MPs criticized the bill for not including equal protection under the law for both Christians and Muslims.
Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros and the Church’s Holy Synod welcomed the easing of red tape and restrictions, but also declared it a compromise bill. It was unclear just a few short weeks ago whether a compromise could be reached before the deadline.
The Salafi-Islamist Nour Party, the only party representing political Islam in Egypt, strongly rejected the law and voted against it, claiming it went against the 2014 constitution. Egypt’s Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati said that on the contrary, “the law goes in line with Article 235 of the constitution, which stipulates that a new law on the construction and restoration of churches must be passed in parliament’s first session and in a way that guarantees Christians the right to exercise their religious duties freely.” Some Liberal and Independent MPs, including some Copts, also rejected the law, but for restrictions within the law.
Article 2, in particular, was criticized for limiting the size of a constructed church based on the number of Christians living in the community. The government census often deflates the number of Christian citizens of Egypt, which may lead to some communities being barred from constructing churches in their villages. In the Minya bishopric alone, which has 100 churches, 150 villages have no church, but few new ones have opened. Most MPs, however, believe the law is a step in the right direction and hope the negative amendments will eventually be eliminated from the law.
A series of contentious discussions took place in recent months between representatives of Egypt’s Christian community and a delegation of government officials over the construction and rehabilitation of new and decaying churches in the country. Past meetings led to members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt to condemn the church construction law, criticizing attached amendments as “unacceptable” and drafted “with no consideration for the citizenship or patriotism of Egyptian Copts.”
Protests by Egypt’s Christians in the wake of a large increase in attacks on members of their community, including the gruesome event where an elderly Christian mother was stripped and forced to walk naked through the streets as a mob of men shouted “Allahu
Akbar!” at her, have escalated tensions. The government had denied the event even took place, further angering Egypt’s 10% Christian population. In the past, Rumors of Churches being built have led to mobs of angry Muslims attacking Christians and looting their homes, shouting “Egypt will remain Islamic!” How Egypt’s Sunni majority reacts to the new law once the construction and rehabilitation of the churches will begin in earnest remains unknown. Egypt’s Christians, even with the passing of this bill, continue to feel under siege, and their concerns are often disregarded. If parliament can pass such a law, and governors can approve the permits, it is hoped that interfaith relations can stabilize. That if the decision-making is more localized, local actors will be empowered to directly address the concerns of both communities. Critics remain skeptical that governors will be able to reject pressure from their conservative Sunni constituents, and permit church constructions. That type of standoff could lead to even more violence and community tention in the future.