The domes of Saint Mark Church in Cairo, EgyptThe old regulation called for significant restrictions on the construction and the maintenance of churches. Under an Ottoman decree from 1856, in order to build a new church, Christians had to obtain presidential authorization. In addition, a law by the Ministry of the Interior from 1934 set ten conditions that had to be met in order to obtain building permits, while requiring the authorization of the governor in order to renovate an existing structure. Essentially, the process could last years and even so, few authorizations were granted because local and national security forces feared the hostile reactions from the local population. Even when permits were granted, local ultraconservatives opposed, provoking serious religious disorder. Egyptian Copts were often accused of clandestinely converting their homes into places of worship, which also provoked tensions and violent clashes.
The new constitution adopted in 2014 invited the legislator to approve, starting from its first term, a law regulating the construction and renovation of churches that guarantees Christians the freedom to practice their religious rites. The new law was approved in August by Parliament just before the closure of the annual session. Initially, the churches approved a first draft but then opposed the amendments made, considering them “inadmissible” and that, for the Coptic Orthodox Church, they represented “a threat to national unity within Egypt, complicating and obstructing the construction of the churches without taking into account the principles of citizenship”. A few days later, however, Church leaders announced that an agreement was made with the government and they withdrew their objections. Nevertheless, in a statement the Orthodox Church expressed hope that the law is not applied literally. The bill was approved by Parliament following lively debates. Examining the text, many of the thirty-nine Copt deputies, elected thanks to the establishment of a quota reserved for Copts within the 2014 Constitution, expressed reservations. As for the Salafi deputies, they voted against the text, saying that it is inappropriate to allow for the construction of churches on Egyptian soil because Islam is the State religion.
According to those who criticized the law, the lack of a unified regulation regarding places of worship is the sign of the difference of treatment between Muslims and Christians. In fact, the mosques are subject to a law from 2004 which is much more flexible and which calls for the issuance of the building permit by the Ministry of Awqaf [Ministry of Religious affairs, Ed.] and not by the president, while renovation does not require government authorization. Many Copts have also criticized the fact that the law was negotiated between the State and the Church leaders, without consulting the members of the community.
With the new law, the construction of a new church continues to be subject to prior authorization, but the decision is now up to the local governor nominated by the President, rather than the head of State. The governor has four months’ time to give a response which, should it be a negative one, must be substantiated. The law however, does not specify if it is possible to appeal against the response or in absence of a response of governors. Furthermore, the law specifies that the new church must be proportional to the number of Christians present in the agglomeration and to their needs, but it does not define the criteria for assessing this “proportion” and it does not indicate the authority in charge of such evaluations. In the absence of official statistics on the distribution of the population among the different religions it is impossible to determine the number of Christians in a given constituency. Moreover, the law refers to “Christians” in general terms, without distinguishing between the different religious communities.
As for existing places of worship, their status can be legalized by next year once the law comes into effect, provided that they comply with building regulations and the right to property. A committee is charged with making sure that these rules have been respected. The law does not set a deadline by which the committee must give its answer and it does not specify the procedure to be followed in the case of an appeal against its decisions. Many of these buildings were not built in accordance with the regulations and are, in most cases, converted living spaces. Therefore, they are unlikely to be legalized.
While Pope Tawadros and the leaders of the other two large Churches expressed full satisfaction with this law, its opponents, even within the Coptic community, accuse them of having succumbed to pressure from the authorities and they believe that this law does not make any improvements to the previous system. According to deputy Nadia Henry, “this project, imposed upon Christians and Churches by the state, codifies the injustice and the persecution against Christians. It is an embarrassment for the Egyptians who accept it.” The law was approved with a two-thirds majority. Its detractors fear that it could provoke an increase of religious violence.