Long-awaited church construction law in Egypt disappoints activists
Egypt recently issued a long-anticipated law governing the building of churches. Christians in the country had hoped its passage would help alleviate sectarian violence, but observers say the legislation falls dismally short.
Human Rights Watch went so far as to call the measure discriminatory. In an article published on its website on Thursday, the organization said that the law “maintains restrictions over the construction and renovation of churches and discriminates against the Christian minority in Egypt”.
Specifics of the law aside, it's its very existence that Mina Thabet, programme director for minorities and vulnerable groups with the Egyptian Commission of Rights and Freedoms, finds troubling. Thabet opposes the idea that there are restrictions governing the exercise of fundamental rights such as the practicing of religion. “The problem is the philosophy of drafting such a law,” he said. “I believe there should be regulations, but not restrictions.”
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) expanded on that point in a statement: “A special law to regulate the construction of churches already sends a discriminatory message that the state distinguishes Christian citizens from Muslim citizens. While the state permits the construction of mosques based on compliance with building codes and subordination to the Ministry of Endowments, it imposes additional conditions on churches.”
The new law removes a previous requirement that the president approve the building of all new churches, making that instead the responsibility of local governors, but it codifies many already existing restrictions and adds new ones. For example, it requires that the number of churches be “commensurate with” the number of Christians in the area, something almost impossible to assess accurately.
“Since the government has never released statistics about Egypt’s Christian minority, viewing the number as a national security issue, determining the size of local Christian communities is difficult and most likely arbitrary,” Human Rights Watch writes.
The legislation also contains a security provision that means the threat of sectarian violence could result in the denial of building permissions. Sectarian clashes have been on the rise since the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011. The EIPR documented 77 such incidents since 2011 in the province of Minya where Christians make up an estimated third of the population alone. Nationwide, Christians represent an estimated 10 percent of the overall population.
“The state’s role should be limited to respecting and promoting the right to build, to ensure freedom of worship,” Ishak Ibrahim, EIPR’s freedom of religion and belief officer, said in a statement. “But the law gives the executive authority broad discretion to violate the right to build and repair churches. It gives the security apparatus a say in the granting of permits and allows it to monitor activities and any modifications to religious buildings.”
Equally disturbing to observers is how the law came into existence. “Civil society was not allowed to engage,” Thabet said. “Even Coptic activists were excluded.”
The law was negotiated behind closed doors with leaders of the Coptic Church and almost no outside involvement. Even some members of parliament were kept out of the discussions. Historically, the Coptic Church served as the voice of its community and had close relationships with several leaders. Current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power with the overt support of the Coptic patriarch Pope Tawadros.
History of violence
The building of churches has long been a contentious issue in Egypt and is often the source of sectarian violence. The longstanding regulations on church construction date back to an 1856 Ottoman decree that required non-Muslims to obtain presidential permission in order to build new houses of worship. The law was updated in 1934 to specify conditions that must be met before authorization can be granted, including obtaining the approval of the neighboring Muslim community.
In 2005 then-president Hosni Mubarak issued a new decree that required regional governors to authorize the renovation or expansion of existing churches and prohibited repairs and maintenance without prior written notification. Permissions to build, expand and renovate have been notoriously difficult to obtain.
Several recent governments promised to issue a “unified” law governing the construction of houses of worship that would be consistent across religions, but none ever did. The new law came about because the constitution that was passed in 2014 required that in its first term the next parliament –i.e. the current one pass new legislation regulating churches “in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians”.
Parliament voted to approve the measure only three days after receiving the draft legislation from the cabinet, which has led some observers to conclude that its passage arose from the need to fulfill the constitutional requirement and not out of a desire for real reform. Many are skeptical that it is enough to alleviate the cycle of sectarian violence that has gripped Egypt.
“Egyptian authorities need to hold accountable those who commit violence and reform the law to protect freedom of religion,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All Egyptians hold the right to live their lives in peace, regardless of their religious beliefs.”