Egyptian Christians say there are too few churches
Cairo - Raouf Adli, a Christian textile worker in his mid- 50s, is fortunate enough to have a church close to his home in Giza province near Cairo where he and his family can pray.
“It takes me a short ride from my home to be at the church to attend the mass every week,” Adli said. “This is a real blessing in a country like Egypt, in fact.”
Many other Egyptians, however, travel tens, and sometimes hundreds, of kilometres for Christian services. A lack of churches leaves the religious life of most of the country’s Christians unfulfilled and praying in a church simply a dream.
Christians make up almost 10% of Egypt’s population of 90 million. There are, however, only 2,869 churches in the country, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).
An 80-year-old law states that Christians need official permission to build churches or renovate existing buildings. Most of the time, authorisation is not given. Christians sometimes evade the requirement and carry out construction in secret and this often ignites tension with Muslim neighbours.
“This is not a problem of the present time but it dates decades back,” said Kamal Zakhir, a Christian analyst. “This problem started in 1935 when the government made it necessary for Christians to get permission before building new churches or renovating old ones.”
This requirement has resulted in a situation in which the number of Christians is far greater than current church facilities can accommodate. Repeated calls to allow Christians to build churches have been mostly ignored.
Restrictions, observers say, on Egyptian Christians’ freedom to construct new churches offer insight into the state of religious freedom in Egypt, a country where the majority Muslim population can easily build mosques. There are 108,000 mosques in Egypt, CAPMAS said. That is one mosque for about every 750 Egyptian Muslims. The Christian/church ratio is one church for every 3,140 Christians.
Some of Egypt’s villages and neighbourhoods do not have churches, despite the presence of a large Christian population.
When Adli goes to his nearby church there is little space in the pews for his family. Sometimes they stand throughout the service.
“Sitting or standing by me inside the church are always people who travel a long way to attend mass,” Adli said. “They tell me that they do not have churches in their neighbourhoods or villages.”
Change appears to be taking place. Christians have received backing from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the first Egyptian president to go to the papal seat in Cairo for Christmas services in 2015. He did the same when Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas this year.
Sisi recently inaugurated a number of development projects when Kamel al-Wazir, the head of the army’s engineering unit that oversaw the implementation of the projects, told him that one of the new communities established on the outskirts of Cairo had a house of worship in it.
“What type of house of worship?” Sisi asked.
“A mosque, Mr President,” Wazir answered.
“A church must be established, too,” Sisi said.
Nevertheless, Christians say they want the right to have their own churches be guaranteed by law, not by a president who will one day leave the position. Christians hold about 6% of the seats of parliament and Christian lawmaker Mona Mounir says she and her colleagues will soon submit such legislation.
“The law will give Christians the right to build, renovate and enlarge their churches,” Mounir said. “The government cannot deny Christians a right strongly considered theirs in their capacity as citizens of this country.”