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Egypt’s Cabinet approves church building law

Egypt’s Cabinet approved a long-debated draft law concerning the building and restoration of churches on Thursday, according to notes from a Cabinet meeting sent to local media.

Approval was given “in light of constitutional rule and after complete alignment between representatives of different churches in Egypt,” the notes read.

The bill will now be passed to the State Council to ensure its stipulations are in alignment with Egypt’s Constitution, before being passed to Parliament for approval.

The Cabinet’s approval follows a prolonged back and forth between church representatives and the government over the draft.

“We cannot say there were disagreements over the content of these articles, but more questions about its articulation,” says Monsef Soliman, legal advisor to the Coptic Orthodox Church. “We want to make sure that the law’s articulations are very accurate. We care about every word in use in the law,” he added.

The Church released a statement Wednesday announcing an agreement had been reached with the government concerning the law, adding that it also “needs an open mind when it comes to practical, not literal implementation.”

Several drafts of the law have been circulating since discussions began earlier this summer amid ongoing debates between church representatives and the government, reaching a peak earlier this month.

One of the main contentions related to the building of domes with crosses on top of church buildings. In one of the drafts presented by the government, the building of a church was defined as a building surrounded by a fence, while the relevant article did not specify the adding of domes and crosses.

Another contention pertained to the licensing of churches, a problem particularly associated with the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has numerous unlicensed churches that have been built in recent years.

Soliman speculates that the licensing of old churches and allowing crosses on domes has been passed in the new law, adding, “How can a church dome not have a cross?”

Another point of contention relates to a stipulation connecting the size of a new church in relation to the population size and its needs, which was deemed problematic for its ambiguous phrasing, leaving it to the governor to accept or decline a permit. It is unknown what has become of this stipulation in the newly passed draft.

Rafic Greiche, spokesperson for the Catholic Church also says the disagreements over the law did not pertain to principles but to certain articulations. Greiche adds that much of what was reported as disagreements is based on mere rumors.

Greiche is hoping for the law to pass through Parliament, and says it is possible there will be further debates and it may be rejected still, but this is unlikely.

Both Soliman and Greiche praise the “political will of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi” for permitting this much-awaited law to pass. Sisi met with Coptic Pope Tawadros in July amid heightened disagreements over the law.

Building churches in Egypt has been previously regulated by a set of conditions dating back to the 1930s, which includes the approval of the neighboring Muslim community, and which gives unlimited powers to the security apparatus to determine whether these conditions are met or not.

Article 235 of the 2014 Constitution stipulates that parliament should pass a law organizing the building and restoration of churches during it’s first session.

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