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Religion and Society

Egyptian Copts and the Liberty to Build Churches

"It is as if prayer and worship by Christians were crimes," Pope Tawadros says

Last update: 2018-06-11 17:14:20

Pope Tawadros meets Oasis in 2013

The presence of Christianity in Egypt dates back to the mid first century AD, when Saint Mark the Apostle came to Alessandria from the neighboring Libya, his birthplace, after becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, Palestine. Saint Mark was martyrized in Alessandria in 68 AD and was one of the founders of the Egyptian Church, known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. Christianity went on to spread throughout Egypt. As early as the end of the first century, according to tradition, Egypt was Christian from North to South, from the far West to the Far East through the oases, deserts and countryside. Several pagan temples were turned into Christian places; many temples, mausoleums and sanctuaries became churches in which Christians reunited, especially during the centuries of persecution – the end of which time saw the construction of churches for the faithful. Naturally, at the time, the problem of laws and regulations had not yet arisen. This situation continued even after the arrival of Islam to Egypt in the seventh century AD. Occasionally, Christians suffered the repression of certain ruthless rulers, but the country also experienced moments of tolerance, friendship and good relations. Christian ruins and ancient churches spread throughout many areas of Egypt, especially those visited by the Holy Family, bear witness to the proliferation of places of worship in the cities, villages and deserts. This state of things lasted until the country was put to the test by violence, by persecution and by the fanaticism of the Ottoman imperialism. In 1856, the so-called “Imperial rescript” (khatt humāyūnī” was issued, a law which placed the building of churches under the jurisdiction of the upmost authority of the country – the khedive, the king, or the president. The construction of churches thus became a prerogative of power, and it came to constitute an unjustifiable exception regarding the construction of any other building on the State’s soil. Although there have been many rulers, this law remained in effect even after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Egypt. In 1934, then secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, al-Ezabi Pasha, added ten conditions to the law. The construction of a church became a very difficult issue requiring years and very complex procedures. This state of affairs continued until the revolution and the birth of the Republic in July 1952, 64 years ago, when the problems appeared. Bored and fanatic administrators began to take advantage of this law and these conditions in order to suspend the building of churches in many places. Some cities probably still continue to experience this injustice, despite being inhabited by many Egyptian Copts. There were often cases of so-called “sectarian sedition,” which caused conflict, pain and wounds in the hearts of Coptic Egyptians and nurtured their feeling of being treated like second class citizens compared to their fellow Egyptians, despite their long history in the country. In 1972, with the start of the presidency of Anwar al-Sadat and the pontificate of Pope Shenouda, alarming incidents occurred in the area of al-Khanka, in Cairo’s outskirts. At the time, the country was gearing up for the October War of 1973, and these events impacted the cohesion of the internal front, which led President Sadat to form an inquiry committee presided by Jamal al-Oteify, who was already president of the People’s Assembly. This committee drew up a report, known as the “report of the Oteify Committee,” in an attempt to resolve this thorny issue. It included a detailed explanation behind the causes of the restrictions provided for the construction of churches, identifying them with the ten unlawful conditions, established by a government clerk, and the racial decree – in other words by the Ottoman Law which remained in effect for 116 years, from 1856 to 1972. Furthermore, the report also proposed effective remedies to the so-called “sectarian sedition,” as it is defined in over 30 countries, but unfortunately it remained stuck in storage until today. With the great demographic increase, the construction of churches became an extremely difficult goal to achieve and met the resistance of more than one politician, driven purely by discriminatory and arbitrary reasons, inflicting wounds on the body of the nation. A year does not pass without hearing of these events, and there are those who deliver them on a silver platter to enemies of the nation and ignorant people in order to feed evil, pain and tribulation in Egypt, the homeland of friendship, tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Despite the clarity of the solution as demonstrated in the report of the Oteify Committee, it was not put into practice for almost forty years. With the increasingly widespread crises, linked to the granting of places of worship to Egyptian Christians, and despite the enactment of decrees which apparently seem to be concessions, the issue of the procedures that require years of wait remained unresolved until today. It is as if Christians gathering, praying and worshiping were crimes and Egyptian Christians can only consult with their God following authorization or decree, after having to wait for approval. With the events that have transpired in the country’s recent history – the revolution and the preparation of the constitutions – the need to enact a law regulating the construction of churches and guaranteeing the freedom of worship to Egyptian Christians became evident. In this regard, Article 522 of the constitution places the obligation to legislate in the first session on the Assembly of representatives. Egyptian Churches established a commission to set the guidelines of this law presented to the Ministry of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, before being submitted for approval by the House of Representatives, which will assess validity and suitability to solve the problems accumulated in almost 260 years since the issue of the “Imperial rescript.” We hope that the many drafts, discussions and proposals translate into a veritable law, without complications, not just beautifully written articles that are obscure in content or, as they say in Egyptian dialect, "a glass-filled pie” (torta bihā zugāg). The Church is a spiritual institution devoted to saving man from sin, but it is also a social institution in service to society. Therefore, we aspire to a law that is very clear in its articles, which opens a new chapter in the regulation of this issue and puts an end to all that was before, a law which does not discriminate among citizens, and which is far from the administrations that impose an unacceptable hegemony, and provides unrealistic perceptions and hypotheses. The national history of the Egyptian Church bears witness to the active role played by faith over the course of 20 centuries and how this is a national institution through and through, concerned with national security, with the conservation and preservation of internal cohesion and unity. The role of Egyptian Copts and their Church is recognized both at home and abroad, and on that basis we pray and await a just law, especially because we live in a new era in which relationships between state institutions are healthy, and in order to build up our dear Egypt into a nation that enjoys the respect of all nations. [This article was translated from the original Arabic version]

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