In Selected Opinion

By Samia Sidhom – Watani 

Watani church law

Given the discrimination, oppression and severe humiliation Christians in Egypt have to sustain if they so much as think of building or renovating a church, it is no surprise that the issue of building and restoring churches has long irked them.

No wonder then that the need for a modern-day law to govern the building and restoration of churches in Egypt has increasingly imposed itself on the Egyptian scene. The last few weeks have carried the prospect of the imminent passage of such a law. Given that church building or renovation, whether or not officially licensed, lies at the root of the majority of attacks against Copts, the new law has seriously preoccupied Egyptians in general and Copts in specific.

The problem of church building or restoration in Egypt is not a new one. Christianity was introduced to Egypt by St Mark in the first AD century and Christians directly began to build churches in which to worship. The period of Roman persecution of Christians hit the Copts—the Egyptian Christians—hard; they lost many of their churches and had to go underground. After Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD313, which decreed that Christians within the Roman Empire should be treated benevolently, Copts began to practise their faith and build churches without fear. To this day Egypt is home to churches that go back to the 4th and 5th centuries, and they are still in use.

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Ups and downs, but mostly downs
Islam came to a predominantly Christian Egypt in AD640. Even though it started off by giving Copts the right to worship and adhere to their beliefs, oppression of the Copts increasingly escalated throughout the country’s Islamic history. Despite a few mellow decades when the Muslim rulers looked favourably on Copts, the Copts were more often than not denied the right to build churches or renovate old ones. There were times too when Muslim rulers would order churches closed or pulled down altogether. History books and the Synaxarium of the Coptic Orthodox Church include countless stories of closure, or the actual demolition of churches. The Synaxarium extols the rare incidents when some Muslim ruler or another would allow a church to be reopened or, more infrequently, built. Last Sunday’s issue of Watani International carried a story on page 2 on the 4th-century Church of the Holy Virgin “As it was so shall it always be”[]

It cited an incident in the early 14th century when, according to the 14th-century historian al-Maqrizi, the church was among many others that were attacked by fanatic Muslims and destroyed. Sultan Nasser Ibn Qalawoon issued a decree that the churches of Cairo should be closed and the Coptic Patriarch be banned from praying in public. At that time the ruler of Barcelona, who had good commercial ties with Egypt’s rulers, succeeded in persuading them to open one church for each Christian sect in Egypt so that Christians in the country might be able to worship. The Church of the Holy Virgin in Haret Zuweila was opened for the Coptic Orthodox, and that of St Nicholas in Hamzawi opened for the Greek Orthodox.

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Outdated legislation
As various Islamic-era dynasties came to rule Egypt, issues that concerned church building or restoration were left to the discretion of the [Muslim] local rulers who were more often than not inclined to subdue the Copts.

In 1856 the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I issued a decree, the Hamayouni Edict, with the noble aim of eliminating discrimination against Ottoman subjects of various ethnicities and religions. Among other privileges, it gave Christians the right to build places of worship by submitting a request to the Sultan, thereby guarding them against despotic decisions by local rulers. The Hamayouni Edict is still in force in Egypt today, and requires the approval of the head of State for a church to be built.

In 1934, Egypt’s then Deputy Interior Minister Muhammad al-Ezabi Pasha, decreed a set of ten conditions that would fine-tune the rules for building churches. Famously known as the “Ten Conditions”, they must be met before any application to build a church is presented to the head of State for approval. The Ten Conditions are notorious for the ill-defined criteria they include for building churches, also for the oppressive, humiliating stipulations they impose on Copts. They specify that approval by local Muslims is pre-required for a church to be built; that the proposed church should be sufficiently far from the nearest mosque; that there should be no other same-denomination church in the neighbourhood, village or town; that the number and needs of Christians in the area should warrant a church; and that the proposed church should be away from the Nile, historic sites, public utilities or railways.

One-waywatani church law 4 fraternity
Pope Tawadros II on 15 July wrote an editorial in the weekly al-Kiraza, the mouthpiece of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in which he declared: “Years after years, fanatics and hardliners have used the near-prohibitive Ten Conditions to halt building churches.”

Pope Shenouda III, who was patriarch from 1971 to 2012, and is seen by the Coptic public as a modern-day saint, talked about the Ten Conditions in an event held by Watani in December 2008 to celebrate the paper’s golden Jubilee. With his characteristic good humour, Pope Shenouda said: “The least that can be said of the Ten Conditions is that they are unjust and oppressive. Despite incessant Coptic demand to reconsider them, they were never altered. One of these conditions stipulates that no church may be erected in the vicinity of a mosque. Yet in Egypt, every church has a mosque as its neighbour. When we commented to officials that mosques are being built next to the churches they said ‘but this is a show of fraternity!’ Obviously, fraternity goes only one way.”

Sadat’s Islamism gains a foothold
The Hamayouni Edict and the Ten Conditions were never changed or replaced but remain in force to this day despite the many changes Egypt has undergone in its modern history.

The monarchy was overthrown and Egypt became a republic in 1953; the liberal socialist Gamal Abdel-Nasser became president from 1954 to 1971. But matters did not change for Copts. In 1971, Anwar al-Sadat took office as president. He regarded Nasser’s socialists, who held sway over political life in Egypt, as his adversaries and, hoping to counter their power, he endorsed Islamism and allowed Islamists a strong foothold in Egyptian political life.

Predictably, Copts were among the major victims of President Sadat’s empowerment of the Islamists; the number and ferocity of attacks against them spiralled. The year 1972 witnessed one of the most gruesome incidents against Copts when a church in the Cairo district of al-Khanka was attacked and burned, as were the homes and businesses of Copts there, forcing the problem of church building to the fore. A fact finding committee formed by the People’s Assembly and headed by Gamal al-Oteifi recommended that the terms of building churches should be reconsidered, and that more should be done in the direction of securing the rights of Copts; otherwise, the committee warned, sectarian conflict was bound to rise in volume and viciousness. And rise it did, since very little was done by Egypt’s successive governments.

Sadat was assassinated by his Islamist protégés in October 1981 for making peace with Israel, and Hosni Mubarak became president of Egypt. Mubarak had to deal with Sadat’s legacy of Islamism. Where Copts are concerned, this legacy brought on an escalation in attacks by fanatic Muslims, in the majority of cases the attacks came under the pretext of Copts building churches.

Security sway
In 1999, President Mubarak decreed that church repairs no longer required a presidential, governor’s or ministry permit. Instead, repair of all places of worship was to be subject to a 1976 civil construction code, symbolically placing the repair of mosques and churches on equal footing before the law. Authority to issue permits for the expansion, restoration, and renovation of existing churches was ceded to the governors of Egypt’s 26 governorates; only the building of new churches required a presidential permit. However, as Watani’s Youssef Sidhom repeatedly wrote, the Ten Conditions that had to be met prior to submitting an application for the building of a new church to the President made sure that such applications were minimal. Local security authorities held sway over the approvals required by the Ten Conditions, and also over the closure of churches should any unrest rise during the building of churches even if officially licensed. Owing to the security sway, the process of church building was rendered more and more prohibitive. Applicants for church building were sent through a seemingly unending journey to strive to meet the Ten Conditions. It took years on end for a licence to be issued, that is if it got issued at all. In one notorious case of a church in Maamoura, Alexandria, it took more than 40 years for a licence to be issued.

Countless ways were invented to hinder church building approvals; the Ten Conditions could always take care of that. One method frequently used by fanatics to abort the building of a church was to frantically rush to build a mosque in the vicinity of a construction site once they got wind a church would be built there. This effectively rendered the intended church illegal since it violated one of the Ten Conditions.

Islamist culture
Even if Mubarak was able to change or modify some of the outdated legislation that was the scourge of Copts, it was a near-impossible task to change the Islamist culture that had increasingly gained ground with many of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population. Ironically, it would remain that way till the 2011 Arab Spring brought the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to rule Egypt. This had the effect of revealing to Egyptians first-hand the reality of Islamist rule; on 30 June 2013 some 33 million Egyptians took to the streets in peaceful nationwide demonstrations that demanded an end to MB rule. The military responded to the demand of the masses, the MB were overthrown, and Egypt became a secular State. It must be admitted, however, that Islamist culture continues to linger on especially in rural areas, and that the worst victims of this culture are the Copts and the worst of their suffering is on account of the Copts’ need for places to worship in.

It does not help that Islamist culture rejects the erection of any new church in countries of Dar al-Islam, literally the ‘House of Islam’, meaning Islamic countries in the world. A famous fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) says not only that new churches are not allowed, but that existing churches may not be renovated, restored or repaired. This amounts to saying that there should be no churches altogether in Islamic places; new ones may not be built and existing ones must be left to fall apart. More recent Islamic opinions say that churches may be built in Islamic countries if security conditions allow. Predictably, hardline Muslims adhere to the first fatwa whereas the more liberal endorse the second. Fervent, repeated calls by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi for the reform of Islamic address have, so far, yielded no fruit.

Church in Muslim village ‘not right’

watani church law 6The Islamist principle that there should be no churches in Islamic places has been exercised countless times when Copts attempted to build a church. Most recently, the Muslim villagers of Koum al-Loufi in Samalout, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, on 30 June 2016 waged an attack against the Coptic villagers on suspicion that they were building a church. It was rumoured that the Copts intended to convert a house under construction, owned by a member of their community, into a church. Four Coptic-owned houses were burned and the families that lived in them were left homeless. []

The village includes no church to serve the local 1800-strong Coptic population; the villagers have to travel to worship in the nearest village that includes a church. Ten years ago, according to Anba Pavnotius, Bishop of Samalout, Minya, an application was filed with the relevant authorities for licence to build a church in Koum al-Loufi, but no such licence has been granted until now. A few years ago the Copts used the ground floor of a local building to hold religious ceremonies, but the village Muslims got wind of that. The local security officials, fearing unrest or rioting, closed down the place. Now the security authorities are attempting to persuade the Muslim villagers to accept the reopening of that informal church, but the answer has so far been a flat “No”. When asked by the media: “Then where should the Copts worship?” the reply was: “They can go to the church in the nearest village. A church here would cause intolerable sectarian tension.” They insisted Koum al-Loufi was a ‘Muslim village’, the Copts were ‘a minority’, and it was not right that a Muslim village should include a church. [] Koum al-Loufi is not an isolated incident. Such incidents are very common in rural areas.

Cheating the community

watani church law 7To sum it all up, Christians in Egypt need a fair, modern-day law to legalise the building of churches and put an end to the agony and humiliation they have been subjected to for centuries on end whenever they needed licence to build a church. Given the huge population growth Egypt has been seeing since the 20th century and which naturally includes growth in the number of Copts, the all-too-predictable result of the absence of fair legislation for church-building is that Coptic communities have found that the only way out for them was to resort to building unlicensed churches. It had come to the point where this was the only chance they had to worship; otherwise they would have to altogether forego ritual prayers.

Predictably, unlicensed churches carry the risk of overnight closure under the pretext that they are built outside the law. Worse, they have repeatedly been the targets of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Non-licensed churches have been used as a lame excuse to target Copts, to the point that in rural Egypt a Copt may be mobbed for building a house, and that house destroyed and burned, because the local Muslims think it might be used as a future church. To say nothing of the constant feeling by Copts that they have to cheat the community if they need to worship, and that prayer has become a confrontational activity.

New Constitution
Throughout the last two years Christians in Egypt have held high hopes that the law they needed so badly would finally come to pass. The 2014 Constitution, which was drafted after the overthrow of the Islamist regime that came to rule Egypt in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, stipulates that a law for the building and restoration of churches should be passed during the first round of the first post-2014-Constitution parliament.

During a meeting between President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros II on 28 July 2016, a number of bishops who were present placed before the President specific problems that required action.

Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta, talked about the draft law for building churches, which was scheduled to go before the House of Representatives in August. He said the draft included articles the Church could never accept. Two articles in specific were points of contention. One required that the building of any new church should pre-require security approval; the other placed a condition that an existing non-licensed church would only be recognised if it had acted as a church for a minimum of five years. The Church, for its part, demanded that the first article should be altogether removed from the draft law; and the second should reduce the minimum period to one year instead of five.

President and Pope

watani church law 8The matter had been broached during the meeting between Pope Tawadros and the MP delegation a few days earlier. The Pope was then very straightforward when he addressed the MPs with: “We will not accept that any body or authority should hold sway over the building of churches. We have so far been governed by an outdated edict that goes back to the Ottoman Empire some 160 years ago. Do not put me in the position where I will have to reject the law,” he said.

When Anba Pola explained the matter to President Sisi during the meeting with the Pope and the Coptic delegation, the President showed profound interest. Since the draft law is proposed by the State, the President directly issued his orders that the Church’s demands should be fulfilled. It was very important, he said, that the law should be passed as soon as possible, to put an end to problems that arise on account of the Copts having to build their churches outside the law.

But this was not the end of the matter. Last week President Sisi had to intervene again in favour of the Church. Even though the articles that had been changed by order of the President were a boon to the Church, it is obvious that other articles were later added or changed, and that these articles are unacceptable to the Church.

Satisfactory to all
On Wednesday 18 August the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement which declared that representatives of Egyptian Churches took part in an important meeting with representatives of a number of State authorities to discuss the bill for building churches proposed by the government. The Church representatives, according to the statement, were surprised to find that the draft included “unacceptable changes [to a version previously approved by the Churches] and impractical additions”. The Churches therefore declared that the draft law in its current version stood to jeopardise Egyptian national unity in view of the complications and impediments it included. It did not honour citizenship rights or the national gist of Egypt’s Copts. “The draft law,” the statement declared, “is still under discussion, and the matter requires good intentions and a faithful patriotic sense for the sake of Egypt’s future and her unity.” The Church’s statement was interpreted by the media as a rejection of the draft law.Details of the draft law are the topic of this week’s editorial []

Several meetings were held in the following week between the Pope and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail while Minister of Legal Affairs and the House of Representatives Magdy al-Agati tried hard to iron out the differences. President Sisi again demanded of the PM that the predicament should be resolved and the law passed. Pope Tawadros called for an extraordinary meeting of the Holy Synod, and the Evangelical Church Head Andrea Zaki called for a meeting of the Evangelical Church Council. Watani International goes to press amid official promises that the crisis will be solved and a law satisfactory to all will be passed.

“We ask you, Mother of God”
Since 2005, several bills for a unified law for building places of worship had been presented to consecutive parliaments, but none saw light. In November 2011 the topmost Islamic institution of Al-Azhar, however, rejected the idea of a unified law on grounds that Islamic and Christian worship differed basically; and that there was no problem with building mosques, so why should a new law be enacted? But a new law is needed for the building of churches, al-Azhar conceded. The notion of a unified law was thus dropped once and for all.

In his article in al-Kiraza Pope Tawadros wrote: “The history of the Egyptian Church; its patriotism and the vital role it has been playing over the past 20 centuries prove that it has always been pre-occupied and concerned with the everything about the homeland and its safety, stability, and unity. Copts are Egyptian to the core and, basing on this, we await a fair law for the building and restoration of churches.”

And it’s about time. Throughout their long history, Egypt’s Copts have suffered from restrictions, both official and popular, on holding prayers whether in churches proper or in informal buildings in which they would gather to worship. Old praises for the Holy Virgin still sung with gusto today include the clause: “We ask you, Mother of God, that church doors should be open for the faithful”.

The Ten Conditions

  1. Is the land on which the church is to be built empty or agricultural land, and does it belong to the person presenting the request? Land ownership papers have to be appended to the presented request.
  2. What is the distance between the proposed church and surrounding mosques?
  3. If the land is vacant, is it amid Christian or Muslim settlements?
  4. If it is amid Muslims, do they have any objection to it?
  5. Is there another church belonging to this denomination in the same town or village?
  6. What is the distance between the nearest church belonging to this denomination and to the town in which the requested church is to be built?
  7. What is the number of Christians in the area?
  8. If the land on which the church is to be built is close to Nile bridges or public utilities belonging to the Ministry of Irrigation, approval should be sought from the Ministry itself. Also, if it is near to railway lines, the railway authorities should also give their approval.
  9. An official report should be made on all of the above points, and it should indicate the surrounding buildings to the requested spot on which the church is to be built, including the nearest utilities of a public nature, and the distances between these utilities and the church. This report is to be sent to the Ministry.
  10. The applicant must present with his request architectural drawings on a scale of 1/1000 that are signed by the head of the religious denomination and the engineer who has expertise of the area on which the church is to be built. The competent administration should investigate the truthfulness of the papers, should sign it, and present it with the investigation papers.


Do Christians in Egypt need a law to build churches?

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