Pope Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark Cathedral, leads Egypt's Coptic Christmas eve mass in Cairo, Egypt, January 6, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ever since the Islamic conquest of Egypt 1375 years ago, tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic minority have led to endless flare-ups while stringent regulations made the constructions of churches well nigh impossible.
During Mubarak’s long reign, attempts were made to amend the regulations laid down by an Ottoman sultan, but failed due to the stiff opposition of the Islamic establishment. The new constitution approved by referendum in 2014 raised the hopes of the Coptic community. According to Article 235, “its first legislative term following the effective date of this Constitution, the House of Representatives shall issue a law to regulate constructing and renovating churches, in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians.” The parliament was in fact elected a year later. After endless debates and confrontations both within the government and with Church leaders, the law adopted by the parliament on August 30 purports to facilitate receiving building permits for churches. Not that anyone believed that true equality would ever be achieved between the new law and the few rules needed for the building of a mosque – which are hardly ever implemented.
Egypt is a Muslim country, as stated in article 2 of the constitution, and the sharia its main source of legislation. But the law will do little to convince the Coptic community, some 10% of the population, that they are treated as equal. They know that age-old manifestations of discrimination and persecution will go on, in spite of the good will displayed by President Sissi and his attempts to tone down Islamic rhetoric and strengthen national cohesion. Attacks against churches are everyday occurrences in Upper Egypt due to unrelenting incitement by Muslim clerics whipping crowds into frenzy by disseminating false rumors about “insults to Islam” or sacrilegious relationships between Christian men and Muslim women. Nevertheless, the new law can be perceived as a first step towards greater understanding and reconciliation.
The text voted last week sets down with a wealth of details the way a church should appear from the outside as well as from the inside and what functions can be carried out. The relevant church community whose faithful will be allowed to enter must be a legally recognized entity. Article 2 is particularly troublesome. It stipulates that the area on which the church is to be built must be calculated in function of the needs and number of Christians living in the vicinity, grudgingly adding that it can take into account future demographic growth.
In other words, government officials, not the Christians themselves, will decide what are the needs of the community and what should be the size of the church. Many of those officials are vehemently against building churches in a Muslim country. A request to build a church must be presented by a legal representative of the community to the district governor who must reply within four months – during which time he is to seek the advice of “relevant elements.”
On the face of it, this is a significant improvement compared with the previous situation, in which such requests had to be presented to the president - not an easy feat. However, the fact that the governor has to seek advice from “relevant elements“ – presumably security services, the president’s office and perhaps local or national religious institutions – makes it clear that the decision will not be administrative, but will remain political.
There is no appeal procedure in the law, though the unsuccessful applicant might be able to turn to the courts. There is another significant article, which makes it possible to recognize churches built without authorization, provided that they comply with construction and safety codes. In 2011 there were an estimated 2869 churches, most of them built without authorization, since it was nearly impossible to obtain one. Quite a few were set up in the basements of crowded village houses and will not benefit from the law. Officially at that time there were 108 000 mosques, though the real number is evaluated at 50% more.
The three Christian churches – Coptic, Anglican and Catholic – reluctantly agreed to the law despite their reservations, in the hope that some of the restrictions may be lifted in the future. The law had been hotly debated in the parliament. The 8 Coptic members wanted to suppress article 2. Nevertheless, it was adopted by a two-thirds majority; 9 members of the Salafi party Nur casting their vote against: Egypt is a Muslim country, they argued, the Sharia forbids building prayer houses of other religions on Muslim soil. Representatives of the million-strong Coptic community abroad, mainly to be found in the United States, protested and are still protesting, since Christians are still being deprived of basic rights.
However flawed, the new law is still a vast improvement on the previous one. It removes the conditions imposed by the Ottoman regime which were still enforced. The latest version dates back to 1856, when, under the pressure of the great powers of the time - France, England and Germany – reforms were instituted in the Ottoman Empire. They included the cancellation of the infamous poll tax imposed on Jews and Christians as well as other humiliating measures. For the first time, religious and ethnic minorities were permitted to build houses of prayer – subject to a number of conditions, including that the demand had to be submitted to the Sultan himself.
In 1934, the law was amended to take into account Egypt’s new independent status. Ten conditions had to be fulfilled before the request could be presented to the king: there had to be a set distance between the church and the nearest mosque; local Muslims had to give their assent etc. President Mubarak issued a decree making it possible to get permission from the governor to repair (but not to build) churches.
Between 2006 and 2011, there were several attempts to abolish some of the most stringent provisions of the Ottoman law, but they failed due to the determined opposition of the Islamic establishment and especially the Salafists who published fatwas forbidding construction of churches in the land of Islam.
What remains to be seen is how the new law will be implemented. Getting past the corruption ridden and cumbersome Egyptian administration and overtaking the strong opposition of Islamic circles will not be easy. Surveys carried out in the last twenty years show that 80% of the Muslim population believe that the Sharia must be the basis of the state constitution in Egypt. It will be an uphill fight for Copts demanding greater equality in their own country.
The President still has to sign the law before it gets into effect. As a last ditch effort, an association calling itself “Egyptians against religious discrimination” was set up with incredible speed. It is gathering signatures and has written to the president asking him not to implement a law “against the religious freedom of Christians in Egypt.” It allegedly represents parties and political figures, though no details have been published yet. It is difficult to believe that it enjoys wide popular support. Yet the very fact that it came into being shows that something approaching civil society is appearing in Egypt.