When a Coptic Orthodox community in an Ismailia village built a church in 2009 to avoid walking 6 km to the closest church in a nearby city, their Muslim neighbors were angered and pressed police to close the church, arguing that its construction was unlicensed.
Following the 2011 revolution, the village’s Coptic Christians renewed their attempts to open the church after former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised to open all unlicensed churches. But these promises turned out to be void.
A year ago, negotiations with the village’s Muslim community resurfaced. Both sides agreed that Copts would pray in a temporary location until security forces managed to clear all official papers for the church to reopen.
“The temporary church was a huge tent built on an empty piece of land. A priest was permanently appointed to hold prayers there,” says Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher of religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who has closely followed the case.
But last Thursday, the church, or rather the tent, went up in flames.
A statement from the Minya Archbishopric claimed the tent was set ablaze by “extremists.”
The Interior Ministry, however, insisted that the incident was purely criminal in nature, and had no political or sectarian motivations. Security officials in Minya said that two men involved in a personal feud with the church’s guard attempted to burn the tent in revenge, the privately owned Youm7 newspaper reported.
Like many others, the Christian community of the Ismailia village has been waiting for a draft law that would legalize thousands of unlicensed churches and allow them to freely build their places of worship. The issue has been at the origins of many sectarian conflicts arising across Egypt in the last 40 years, especially in Upper Egyptian governorates.
The moment may have arrived, as a bill to organize the building of churches is expected to be forwarded to Parliament after representatives of Egyptian churches review it. Rafic Greiche, spokesperson of the Catholic Church, says that the draft law should be discussed according to the Parliament’s schedule.
Leaks of the bill reveal that it stipulates that governors are entitled to approve requests to build churches across the country within 60 days of the request date, though Greiche says that the period is up to four months. If the governor doesn’t respond within this period, an approval is automatically issued.
According to the leaked draft, the heads of different churches are legally entitled to submit the requests. Churches have to follow certain rules with regards to the construction, design and height of minarets.
If a governor rejects a request, the official must state the reasons for the refusal, and church representatives would have the right to appeal before the Administrative Court. It would be forbidden to build churches on agricultural lands, or lands owned by the Ministry of Antiquities or the Egyptian Railway Authority. Under the bill, the church must own the land on which a new church would be erected.
The bill includes a transitional article that legalizes the status of unlicensed churches, provided they were built at least five years before the law was passed, and in accordance with the construction rules mentioned in the law.
But this stipulation could pose a problem, according to Greiche.
“For the Catholic Church, for example, there are a few unlicensed churches. The problem for the Orthodox Churches runs much deeper,” he says.
There are thousands of unlicensed churches built in various villages across Egypt, many of which were built in recent years.
“The law also does not indicate the fate of churches for which licenses are rejected,” Greiche points out.
The laws organizing the building of churches date back to the Ottoman Empire, with the Hamayouni Decree issued in 1856 giving the Ottoman Sultan the supreme power in giving permissions to build houses of worship and tombs for non-Muslims. In 1934, however, then-Interior Minister Mohamed Ezaby Pasha issued a decree stipulating 10 conditions for Copts to be able to build churches, a law that still remains in effect.
The 10 conditions, which include obtaining the approval of the neighboring Muslim community to build a church, have always been difficult to meet. The decree also bans building churches in a village, city or a district if another church already stands nearby. It also gives wide powers to security authorities to determine if all the conditions have been met.
“Would the new law put an end to security intervention in building churches?” asks Ibrahim. “In many instances, requests to build churches fulfilled all the 10 conditions, and state security still turned down the requests due to ‘security necessities’.”
But Greiche believes that under the new law, there would no longer be any direct security intervention. “We, as church representatives, will only deal with governors,” he says.
However, the law enables governors to “consult with concerned parties” while looking into building permissions.
Ultimately, Ibrahim questions the need for a law to build churches.
“The bill is very important,” he concludes, “but Copts should have the right to freely build houses of worship without the need for a law.”