The draft law on the construction of churches has renewed the crisis that has existed between the ruling regimes and the Copts in Egypt since the Ottoman era. Over the years, Egypt’s Christians have requested the state to promulgate a law governing the construction of houses of worship, regulating the building of mosques for Muslims and churches for Christians, in light of the challenges in obtaining permission to build new churches, despite the growing Christian population.
A law was issued on Oct. 17, 2001, governing only the construction of mosques, with no mention of the building of churches. In Egypt, a new church may only be built by virtue of a presidential decree, which is issued once a year or once every other year. The difficulties lie in the legislative structure of the state that does not have a mechanism for building churches. Hence, some Christians have turned — in secret — homes into churches.
Until the passing of the 2001 law, any citizen was allowed to build a mosque, even in his own home by the mere authorization of the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
For centuries, the Copts have had no legal reference regulating the construction of churches; the only legal instrument they can rely on is a presidential decision whose issuance is subject to a lengthy procedure.
During the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak, problems related to the construction of churches piled up in all provinces; licenses to build churches were not granted since the issuing authority feared a popular uproar by the Muslim community. In light of the state apparatus’ intransigence, numerous Christian communities in Egypt were forced to build unlicensed churches or perform religious rituals in buildings allocated for theatrical and community activities and sports events.
In this regard, Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Magdi al-Agati told Al-Monitor that the ministry is finalizing a draft law — known in the media as the “unified houses of worship law” — governing the construction of churches, which will be referred to the parliament for approval in its first legislative four-month term ending at the end of September.
According to Article 235 of the Egyptian Constitution, “In its first legislative term following the effective date of this constitution, the parliament will issue a law to regulate the construction and renovation of churches, in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians.”
Before referring the draft law to the parliament, the ministry submitted its provisions to the three Christian communities in Egypt: the Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox churches. Once finalized, the draft will be submitted to the Cabinet for approval and to the Legislation Department of the State Council, before being referred back to the parliament for its final promulgation.
Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark indicated in press statements in the Egyptian media on May 18 that the three churches had reached an agreement with the state on the legal provisions governing the construction of churches, after an exchange of observations, and that the draft law would be passed in the near future.
The constitution of 2004 had excluded mosques from the obligation to issue a governing law, and this law took the name of “a law to regulate the construction and renovation of churches.” The constitution did not mention the need to promulgate a law governing the construction of mosques and contented itself with the law issued in 2001.
Ahmed Sajeeni, the vice chairman of the Wafd Party, told Al-Monitor, “I was hoping that the constitution provides for a unified law for places of worship,” criticizing the separation of the laws and the different rules.
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