Egypt’s church-building bill is milestone for Copts
CAIRO - The Egyptian parliament is to consider legislation giving Egypt’s Copts the right to construct churches just as their Muslim compatriots can build mosques. There are fears, however, the measure could trigger opposition from radical Muslims that would politically destabilise Egypt.
Christian member of parliament Suzy Nashid said the bill, if passed, would “give Christians a right they have been struggling to attain for close to a century”. But, she warned the measure could be meaningless, even if enacted, if authorities fail to enforce it.”
The growing number of Christians in Egypt has dwarfed the number of churches. Only a fraction of the country’s more than 9 million Christians — about 10% of the overall population — can fit into church pews.
The bill, which is expected to be referred to parliament for debate in the next few weeks, allows Christians to file a request to build a church with the offices of provincial governors for approval. It also allows them to request licences for the scores of unlicensed churches and houses of worship.
The bill is a milestone in the struggle of Egypt’s Christian Copts for equality with their Muslim compatriots who can easily construct mosques after filing a request with municipal authorities. Copts have long complained that they are unable to build churches or renovate older ones.
Church construction and renovation have been regulated by rules in force since 1934. Authorities who formulated the rules were so keen to prevent the Christian minority from establishing new churches that they made them almost impossible to meet.
Christians who want to build a church currently have to demonstrate that they own the land, that it is far enough away from a mosque and not close to a concentration of Muslim residents. Other conditions include that there are no other churches nearby and that there are enough Christians in the area to make the construction of a church necessary.
Some Christians travel hundreds of kilometres each week to worship because of the lack of churches near their homes.
“Sometimes Christians have to make their churches look like homes or factories to evade these unbeatable church construction rules,” said Christian activist Ishaq Ibrahim.
Unlicensed churches have triggered bloody clashes in Egypt, especially in southern provinces where radical Islamist groups have a strong following.
There are fears that the new bill could anger Egypt’s Muslim majority fanned by radical Islamists who oppose freedom of faith.
Egypt’s Islamists, especially ultra-orthodox Salafists and the banned Muslim Brotherhood, oppose the presence of Christian houses of worship. They also say Christians should not occupy top government positions or serve in the judiciary.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of churches in July 2013 after accusing Christians of being behind the overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi. The army rebuilt the churches.
“The same propaganda can be used now but this time the current authorities can be accused by radicals of paying the Christians back by allowing them to build new churches,” Ibrahim said.
Extremists have been behind the demolition of scores of unlicensed churches and the closure of others.
At least 48 churches were closed because their builders did not have construction licences but built them anyway, according to local non-governmental organisation Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. It faults the new bill for not referring to those churches, which, it said, means they could remain closed.
The bill is in line with Article 235 of the constitution, which makes it necessary for parliament to pass a law to regulate the construction of churches. Under the new bill, governors can approve church construction requests only after consulting “concerned agencies”. Critics say these “concerned agencies” are Egypt’s security apparatus.
“The problem is that security should have nothing to do with church construction,” said Emad Gad, another Christian member of parliament. “Such a requirement will bring us back to square one where Christian religious life is controlled by the security apparatus.”