In Selected Opinion

By Youssef Sidhom – Watani

On 10 March, Egypt’s Prime Minister issued decision number 10 for Year 2019, legalising the status of 165 unlicensed churches and church-affiliated buildings. This is the sixth batch of Church buildings to be granted legality by the Cabinet-affiliated committee charged with looking into the status of unlicensed churches and related buildings, the committee formed by a Prime Minister Decision according to Law 80/2016 for Building and Restoring Churches. The churches and affiliated buildings that gained legal status had all filed applications for legalisation before the legally-stipulated deadline of 28 September 2017.

Until the Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed in Egypt in September 2016, it was next to impossible for Copts to obtain official licence to build or restore a church. Copts, who direly needed churches in view of the growing congregation and the declining conditions of existing churches, thus resorted to circumventing the law and building churches without licence. The 2016 law includes provisions for legalising unlicensed churches and church-affiliated buildings.

The sixth batch of churches and affiliated buildings recently legalised brings their number up to 753 out of a total 3730 that had filed for legalisation. Four days from today, on 28 March 2019, a full 18 months would have passed on the start of the work of the Cabinet-affiliated committee on 28 September 2017. This means that it took the committee a year-and-a-half to achieve 20 per cent of the workload at hand.

The first batch to gain legality constituted 53 churches and church-affiliated buildings which were legalised on 26 February 2018 by Prime Minister Decision 17/2018. The second batch included 167 churches and affiliated buildings legalised according to decision 18/2018 on 16 April 2018; the third 120 legalised by decision 41/2018 on 18 October 2018; the fourth 168 legalised by decision 51/2018 on 11 December 2018; the fifth 80 by decision 1/2019 on 9 January 2019; and the sixth 165 by decision 10/2019 on 10 March 2019.

A simple calculation would indicate that, at this rate, the committee would need 72 months, another six years, to go through the remaining 2977 churches and affiliated buildings that had filed for legalisation. Add to this the 18 months that have already transpired since the committee started its work, and the committee would have taken seven-and-a-half years to conclude its work. This bitter fact begs a question I had already posed in an editorial I wrote on 4 November 2018 under the title: “To speed up the legalisation of churches, President’s intervention needed?” My words back then were:

“The Law for Building and Restoring Churches was mainly intended to ease the building of new churches and church-affiliated buildings, the restoration of existing ones, and the legalisation of unlicensed ones built before the law was passed … Is it then acceptable to achieve this at tortoise pace? The slow pace constitutes injustice by all standards.

“I fully understand and appreciate the huge responsibilities shouldered by the members of the Cabinet Committee, each in his own capacity, in other State posts. It is not reasonable to assume they could free themselves up to carry the responsibilities of the Committee for Legalising Churches. It is thus necessary to establish an apparatus that would be able to fulfil that task in a reasonable time span.

“I imagine it would take a presidential decision to form a subcommittee, with the necessary administrations, whose sole role would be to get this work done. Only then would legalisation be achieved at a speedier pace.”

The mere thought of having to wait another six years to see the heavy legacy of Egypt’s unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings gain legality is painfully frustrating. True, a huge effort is required to get that work done. Again the question: Can the President intervene to speed up the work and forever close that file? I say ‘forever’ because I see that the Law for Building and Restoring Churches eases the permits and approvals required for that purpose, rendering the erection of any unlicensed building unwarranted. Under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, we have seen countless projects executed in minimal time; this was a demand by the President, which those in charge of the projects strictly committed to. May we now aspire for presidential intervention to compress the time required to grant legality to the entire lot of churches requiring legalisation?


Legalisation of churches: How long will it take?

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