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Religion and Society

Egypt, Copts and Government reach agreement on Church Building Law

Saint Marc Church in Alexandria, Egypt

For months the Coptic Christians in Egypt have asked for non-discriminatory regulation of the construction of places of worship

For over two months, Egyptian Copts have been hoping that a new law on the regulation of building places of worship can put an end to discrimination against their community. The new law would establish the definitive end of the so-called khatt humāyūnī – the “Imperial Rescript” in effect since 1856 which put the building of churches under the jurisdiction of the ruler – and the conditions that the Ministry of the Interior added in 1934, making the construction of churches a long and arduous bureaucratic process. Only as late as last 25 August, the Synod of the Coptic Church announced an agreement with the Egyptian officials, after months of tension between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian government. Just a few days earlier, the same Synod had attacked the amendments proposed by the Parliament to the draft of law on building places of worship.

 

The new law has been approved by the Parliament on 30 August but controversies have not yet died down.

 

 

This delay has raised growing concerns of Pope Tawadros, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, who, in a letter, summarized the difficulties met by Copts in practicing their faith from the seventh century to today. It also contributed to sharpening the tensions and the sectarian confrontations between Egyptian Christians and Muslims, which in recent months, especially in southern Egypt, have been frequent occurrences.

 

 

The Copts, who have lived with apprehension with the coming to power of the Muslim Brothers in 2012, saw their fear – with their flight to other countries – turn to hope: not only did millions of people protest against the Islamists on 30June 2013, but Egypt unexpectedly elected its most Copt-friendly President of its recent history. A President who greatly increased the appeals to carry out a “religious revolution” by renewing the Muslim scholar’s discourse, and the symbolic gestures such as attending the Christmas Mass and wishing Merry Christmas to Copts was an absolute first in the country. Progress then appeared to rapidly be developing: the Parliament has never counted so many Copt members, never have appeals for fraternity been so numerous and sincere, never has the threat of Salafi fundamentalism or fundamentalism linked to the Brotherhood seemed so distant for a period. The military encouraged reflection on the notion of citizenship, which implies equality. Sectarian incidents had become sporadic.

 

 

Since last Spring, however, Pope Tawadros began to worry again. The President began to only speak of “rectification” with regards to religious discourse, and with increasing infrequency. The security bodies have resumed negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the new leadership in power in Saudi Arabia seemed less anti-Islamist and more embroiled in the politics of al-Azhar compared to the times of the late King Abdullah. The law on places of worship that concerns the Church has thus remained under review.

 

In May, sectarian violence saw a sharp rise, with an unprecedented rate of churches set on fire, and attacks on shops and homes of Christians. The causes at the origin of these incidents are always the same: Copts who build places of worship (or at least accused of doing so) are blamed for doing so without authorization, or love affairs between people from different communities raised the outrage of people often, though not always, instigated by Salafi Muslims. Such incidents are “managed” in the same manner that they have always been: the law is not enforced, local officials negate the very occurrence of such incidents or they minimalize them, and traditional resolution councils reach a pseudo-solution without punishing the culprits. Even worse is that the attacks against the community no longer seem to merely be the reaction of an angry and manipulated crowd, rather there are those who accuse local administrations of being complicit.

 

 

The clergy, politicians, intellectuals and Coptic militants supported by secularists and by non-Islamist Muslims, mobilized and spoke out against this state of affairs, calling for the application of the law, the arrest of instigators, and the protection by the army and security forces (the incidents are geographically localized, the governorate of Minya, a city in the country’s South, being the main theater for the clashes). The Coptic diaspora has made its voice heard as far as the United States, which seemed like an alarm bell that pushed the president Sisi to receive the Patriarch, accompanied by an important delegation of clergy members and lay people.

 

 

Ultimately, the main aim of the spokespersons of the community and its Muslim allies is that there is a return of the methods of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, who wanted, above all, to quickly dial down tensions. In so doing, the leader guaranteed impunity to the attackers (when they were Muslims). Today the same thing is happening. However, there is an important distinction, which is likely to be underestimated: the president, top officials and a large proportion of Muslims think that the resurgence of incidents is the result of an Islamist movement which urgently requires a “cultural war” against the “enemies of the notion of citizenship”. But there is also fear that the Islamists are resorting to one of their favorite arguments, which is capable of undermining the image of power, i.e. “this regime is waging war against true Muslims on behalf of crusaders.” In other words, unlike Mubarak, President Sisi does not follow the line of “burying the problem and claiming that it doesn’t exist.” However, he does believe the matter will be gradually resolved (already a step ahead compared to the denial of Mubarak) and believes that the economic, political, security and the Azharite situation (al-Azhar is the venerable Sunni Islamic institution, and today the scene of internal conflicts and problems with the intellectual community) currently obstructs dealing with the issue.

 

 

[This article was translated from the original French version]

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