Egypt’s Christians ambivalent about church licensing law

Egypt’s Christians complained that the 5,000 churches — including 3,000 Coptic churches — are not sufficient to meet their needs.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Hopes and challenges. A view of the dome of the Church of the Virgin Mary on the northern outskirts of Cairo.                (AFP)
Hopes and challenges. A view of the dome of the Church of the Virgin Mary on the northern outskirts of Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - The certification of dozens of unlicensed churches has given hope to Egypt’s Christians that disappointment and delays associated with the restoration or construction of churches are about to end. However, many other Christians said the law does not go far enough.

A government panel that considers requests by Christians for the renovation of old churches or the construction of new ones approved the licensing of 120 churches that had already been built but had been without official protection or designation.

“Such moves will hopefully reduce anger among the Christians and open the door for solving a big problem for them,” said Polis Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Licensing the construction or restoration of churches was once nearly impossible for Egypt’s Christian community of approximately 10 million. Egypt’s Christians complained that the 5,000 churches — including 3,000 Coptic churches — are not sufficient to meet their needs and many Christians must travel long distances to attend services.

Under previous administrations, church construction or restoration was a virtual impossibility. In 1934, Interior Minister al-Ezabi Pasha laid out ten conditions for approving the construction of churches, including not allowing the churches to be built near the homes of Muslims. In a country where 90% of the population isf Muslim, that is practically impossible.

In 1972, President Hosni Mubarak ordered governors to investigate church construction licensing requests. However, the required official paperwork hampered any progress.

Christians prayed at home, either turning their residences into unofficial houses of worship or constructing unlicensed churches. This created friction with Egyptian Muslims, which sometimes turned violent.

The 120 churches recently licensed by the government brought the number of churches whose construction was legalised since April to 340. Those were churches that are receiving retroactive approval and licensing, part of a 2016 law that allowed for the licensing of churches in Egypt for the first time.

Many welcomed the approval for churches’ licensing but others want the licensing authority to speed up its operations because of the reported 3,370 churches seeking retroactive licences.

“This means that only 10% of the church licensing requests submitted by the churches to the government panel were approved,” said Ishak Ibrahim, the head of the Religious Freedoms Section at local rights group Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “This is far from enough.”

This highlights challenges for the Christian minority, with the government panel still dealing with licensing approvals made more than two years ago.

The law makes it necessary for legal representatives of the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church to submit requests for the licensing of churches. The panel, which includes concerned government agencies, studies the requests and decides whether they should be approved.

As for the construction of new churches, the law says Christians must submit requests to the governors of the provinces where the church would be built. The governors would decide on the request within four months. If they turn down the requests, the governors must explain why.

The slow work pace of the panel is cause for concern among the Christians.

Halim said most of the unlicensed churches included in the lists submitted by representatives of the three main churches to the government panel have been shut down by the police.

“This is an investment wasted,” he said. “The number of functional churches remains far from enough for the Christians while their number keeps growing.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the first Egyptian leader to regularly attend Christmas celebrations since becoming taking office in 2014, has taken personal responsibility for the protection of his country’s Christians.

“Do not let anybody ask about your religion,” Sisi told the Christians on Christmas Eve 2015. “Tell them you are Egyptian only.”

Nonetheless, some say the 2016 law is discriminatory because it deals with Christian houses of worship in a separate way than the construction and restoration of mosques.

“The same conditions must be applied to the construction of the churches and the mosques since Christians and Muslims are citizens of the same state,” Christian writer Kamal Zakhir said. “Why should Christians find it that hard to construct their own churches, whereas mosque construction is the easiest thing Muslims can do?”