By Mohamed Hamama/Translated by Heba Afify – Mada Masr –
Parliament has passed a law regulating the construction and restoration of churches in just three days, after months of back-and-forth. Holding an Egyptian flag, parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal announced that the law was passed on Tuesday by a two-thirds majority, after which the hall erupted with chants of “Long live the crescent and the cross… long live Egypt.”
The legislation has been contested since the government first proposed the new regulations. After several months of negotiations, church representatives eventually approved the draft, however the joint parliamentary committee, established to discuss the law, did not initially. Recent sessions became heated, as some members protested against certain articles, escalating at one point to verbal altercations and an exchange of accusations.
On Tuesday, MP Reda Nasif objected to two separate licensing procedures for building churches outlined in the new legislation. One procedure, stipulated in Article 5, requires approval from the governor within four months, while another, Article 6, requires approval from the administrative authority responsible for planning and organization.
“The government is playing us, this draft was written by state security officers. I don’t trust them because they are discriminatory bodies,” Nasif said, addressing Abdel Aal.
In an earlier session, several MPs also objected to Article 2, which specifies that the dimensions of a church must correlate with the size and demand of the Christian population in the surrounding area. Detractors argued that this article runs the risk of unconstitutionality and violates principles of citizenship.
MP Nadia Henry lobbied to remove the article entirely, however her request was denied by head of the meeting Bahaa Abu Shaka. Henry responded by saying, “You’re ruining the country. The government and Parliament don’t want to uphold citizen’s rights, they are running from their responsibilities. They want to pass a flawed law which enshrines restrictions and intransigence. If the president is truthful in what he said about building a church in every city, this will not please him.”
Despite initial objections, the joint committee eventually approved the law and referred it to the general assembly for a final vote, where it passed with a two-thirds majority. Some of the MPs who objected to the law during the joint committee sessions ultimately ended up voting in its favor.
Henry sent a message to the MPs’ WhatsApp group on Tuesday, prior to the assembly urging them to reject the law, writing, “this draft has been imposed on Copts and The Church by the state, this is a law that legislates injustice and the oppression of Copts. This law is a disgrace to all Egyptians who accept it, it’s a national and religious shame.” She urged her colleagues to “take a stand that will be like a patriotic scream in the face of the intolerant and ignorant state bodies, tell them that Copts are citizens — whether you like it or not — citizens with full rights and obligations.”
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who specializes in religious freedoms, spoke to Mada Masr about the new law, noting that several Coptic MPs who had initially objected to the proposed legislation backed out of the discussion. He added that most of them entered Parliament to meet the Coptic quota, which is selected based on proposals from The Church and state security services. He explained that they had little space to properly criticize the law, especially after The Church approved it.
Ibrahim also stated that the law contains some problematic elements, mentioning several of the articles which were criticized in the joint committee sessions. He referred to Article 1, which describes construction specifications in great detail, giving the administrative authority plenty of room to find a pretext on which to obstruct a church building permit if it wants to. He also highlighted that Article 2 doesn’t specify exactly what the appropriate ratio of church size to population is, or which authority is responsible for assessing the population’s needs, while Article 5 fails to outline procedures for when a governor fails to respond to requests appropriately. Ibrahim said that the new law merely recreates the ancient restrictions on church constructions that have been in place for the last 150 years, adding even more restrictions to them.
Church construction and maintenance was made almost impossible by the complicated procedures established under the Ottoman Empire in 1856, and further restricted by a decree issued in 1934 — known as “the conditions of Ezabi Pasha,” named after a deputy interior minister. These regulations remained in place until the issuance of the new law.
The 2014 Constitution decreed in article 235: “The House of Representatives shall issue a law in its first term after the Constitution enters into force regulating the building and renovation of churches, ensuring that Christians have the freedom to practice their religious rituals.” The first term is expected to end within a few days.
Ibrahim told Mada Masr that expediting the process and passing the law three days after it reached Parliament, without real discussion, casts doubt on the state’s intentions, adding that The Church’s approval is not a substitute for proper discussion in Parliament. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms also condemned “Parliament’s rush to pass the church construction law, despite reservations concerning several of its articles.”
The statement faults Parliament for failing to present the law for societal discussion, overlooking the role of civil society and other concerned citizens, limiting the discussion to church officials and state representatives.
“This constitutes a disregard for democratic principles and undermines the rights of citizens to take part in the making of legislation that will organize their lives,” the statement declared.
The controversy around the law intensified in recent months due to a spike in sectarian tension. Many of the incidents were related to attempts to build or restore churches, EIPR reported earlier this month.
In the most recent incident 25 people from the same family left the village of Kom al-Lofy in Minya, fleeing to Cairo after the prosecution released several people accused of attacking Copts in the village after hearing rumors that they were planning to turn one of their houses into a church.