On May 12, the makeshift church of Esmaelia al-Bahreia, Minya, was burned down by ‘extremists’ as the proper church has since 2009 been awaiting government permit to function.Courtesy of www.wataninet.com
Once again the Egyptian Parliament is considering a proposal on the construction of churches that Christians hope will narrow the country’s religious inequality gap.
The House of Representatives was presented earlier this week with the draft law on the issue. Holding its first inaugural session in January this year, it aims to discuss and comment on the new priority legislation within coming weeks, says Catholic news agency Agenzia Fides.
The bill consists of 13 articles, defining a “church” and describing mechanisms to address building issues with local authorities. The draft hopes to recognise Bishops’ right to appeal to a higher government body about delays and to impose a limit of 60 days for a decision to be taken.
Today, the nature of attacks goes beyond mob riots or local authorities’ intransigence.
An on-again-off-again approach has so far characterised the issue, bogging Christians down in a maze of administrative complications.
The construction of each new church typically had to be authorised directly by the Egyptian President, although attempts have been made to grant church-building permits from governors and the security authorities.
It is hoped the new bill will remove a host of hurdles by establishing local authorities as the sole arbiters for screening and approving church construction.
Although building new churches and re-modelling old ones is restricted, and hardly permitted, in numerous cases Christians have set up churches in the basements of their residential buildings, or through establishing NGOs and eventually using their premises for worship.
In small rural communities, it has often taken a rumour about the building of a new church to prompt radical Muslims to riot, attacking the place where Christians gather, the local pastor’s house and Christian properties in the village.
One law for everyone
The idea of a common law covering the building of all places of worship has been on the agenda since at least 2005, when liberal-leaning MP Abulezz al-Hareeri urged one rule for all, regardless of religion.
“The idea of such a common law was floated back in the 1970s as a ‘remedy’ to friction between Copts and Muslims after a number of churches had been attacked,” said Coptic legal activist Naguib Gabriel.
“Today, the nature of attacks goes beyond mob riots or local authorities’ intransigence. A lot more mars the relationship between Egyptians and Egyptians. Important as it is, this law cannot on its own solve all the woes endured by Copts.”
Similar draft laws have been tendered by representatives of civil society, the Cabinet, or Parliament several times before, including in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
The issue remains unsolved, as churches are not on a par with Muslim places of worship.
Egyptian Christians would like any new legislation to scrap rules laid out by the 1856 “Hamayoni Decree”. Dating back to the last days of the Ottoman Caliphate, it still regulates the construction of churches in Egypt.
According to these rules, the building of churches is restricted when close to schools, canals, government buildings, railways and residential areas. Application of such rules has prevented the building of churches in cities and villages inhabited by Christians.
The Ottoman decree is based on legal discrimination against non-Muslims under Muslim rule. It traditionally draws from the “Covenant of Umar”, a pact imposed by the second Caliph of Islam. It specifies the terms Christians and Jews had to submit to, in order to safeguard an existence under Sharia in their newly conquered lands.