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Sisi meets Pope Tawadros as negotiations on law to build churches continue

President Sisi met with the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Tawadros II at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace on Thursday, church spokesperson Boules Halim told Mada Masr on Thursday.

Halim explained that, during the meeting, Sisi referred to “the challenges that Egypt currently faces,” adding that solving these problems will require a lot of patience and effort. Tawadros in return, Halim said, reiterated the church’s commitment to achieving national unity.

The discussion between the two, however, did not extend to recent incidents of sectarian violence in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya, the latest of which resulted in the killing of the cousin of a priest, with a number of others involving assaults on Coptic citizens, and the destruction and looting of homes of Coptic families. According to Halim, these issues were not addressed, and Tawadros did not attempt to relay demands of many in the Coptic community regarding sectarian tension.

Today’s meeting came after recent statements by Sisi on the violence, including a speech last week during a commencement ceremony at the Military Academy, in which the president declared that those instigating sectarian violence aim to create rifts between Egyptians.

“We are 90 million, if we see an incident every day, or even a number of incidents, and react subjectively to it, it won’t be in the interests of the country,” the president said.

“We are all partners in this country,” Sisi added, asserting that it is inappropriate to distinguish between Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Christians. The president’s speech was received with strong applause from the audience, including by Tawadros, who attended the ceremony.

During Thursday’s meeting, Bishop Boula of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Tanta and head of the church committee leading the negotiations around a law regulating the building of churches, thanked Sisi for his intervention to create a consensus on the law, Halim added, but declined to provide any information concerning the nature of this intervention.

Boula was not available to provide additional clarification on the alleged presidential intervention in the issue, which has been a source of tension between Muslims and Copts across several governorates in recent weeks.

However, Boula said in a telephone interview with ONtv channel on Tuesday that most of the contentious articles that the church had opposed in the draft law had been removed, after his meeting with Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Magdy al-Agaty.

According to Boula, the committee agreed that the law is now “satisfactory to Copts and Egyptians,” after the committee and Agaty agreed to remove part of articles 2 and 8, which pertained to the conditions and official documents required to obtain permits to build churches, on the basis that they violate Building Law 119/2008.

Meanwhile, the liberal Free Egyptians Party declared in a press conference Wednesday that it has drafted another law addressing the issue of building churches, claiming that their version of the law deals succcesfully with the contentious issues in the government’s bill.

“The state is working on a draft law that is not in line with what churches are looking for, pushing us to work on another draft that we see is more just,” party official Mahmoud al-Alaily said.

He added that 173 parliamentarians have already endorsed his party’s draft law, which could potentially lead to more debate when the government’s law is passed on to Parliament.

The government’s bill stipulates that governors are entitled to approve requests to build churches across the country within 60 days of the request date. If the governor does not respond within this period, an approval is automatically issued. In addition, the heads of different churches are allowed to submit building requests. Additionally, churches have to adhere to certain rules regarding construction, design and height.

If a governor rejects a request, the official must state the reasons for the refusal, and church representatives have the right to appeal the decision before the Administrative Court. Building churches on agricultural land, or land owned by the Ministry of Antiquities or the Egyptian Railway Authority, will be prohibited under the new law, and the Coptic Orthodox Church must own the land on which the new church will be built.

The law includes a transitional article that legalizes the status of unlicensed churches, provided that they have been built at least five years before the law is issued — a caveat that the Coptic Orthodox Church opposes, as many of its unlicensed churches have been built during the last five years.

The Free Egyptians Party’s draft, however, contains other articles that address concerns Copts have in relation to building churches. It introduces more flexible measures to issue permits to build churches, and states that all unlicensed churches will be legalized regardless of the time they were buit. It also imposes fines against officials who deliberately decline to facilitate the process of issuing church-building permits, and prison sentences against those who attempt to disrupt the process of building a church.

The draft also commits the state to protect houses of worship and obliges the Interior Ministry to secure the construction process of new churches at the request of church representatives.

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