By Youssef Sidhom – Watani –
The date 28 September 2019 marks two years since a specially-tasked Cabinet committee began looking into the legal status of unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings in Egypt, with the aim of endowing them with legality. The committee was formed according to the Law for Building and Restoring Churches which went into effect on 28 September 2016.
Until the Law for Building and Restoring Churches was passed in Egypt in 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 declining conditions of existing churches, resorted to building churches without licence. The 2016 law includes provisions for legalising already existing unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings.
Ever since the Cabinet committee undertook its task of approving the legalisation of unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings in Egypt, the number of which amounted to 3730 buildings that had applied for legality according to the 2016 law, it has regularly been reviewing the conditions of one batch after another of these buildings, and approving the legalisation of most. Legality is final only when these buildings comply with the conditions stipulated by the law: they should be the property of the Church, built on Church-owned land, the buildings should be structurally sound and should comply with the conditions of civil defence, and the Church should pay the required dues.
The most recent batch of churches and affiliated buildings approved for legalisation by the Cabinet committee was the 10th batch; the approval decision was signed by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli on 23 September 2019. It concerned 62 churches and affiliated community service buildings, bringing the number approved for legalisation up to 1171 out of the total 3730 that had applied for legality. The Cabinet committee thus completed 31.4 per cent of its charge in the span of 24 months; 68.6 per cent still remain. If it keeps up the same pace, it would need 56 months—four years and eight months—to finish looking into the status of all the cases placed before it. I again feel that nothing expresses the situation as perfectly as the Egyptian folk proverb, which I use with a twist: So little over, so much still lies ahead.
Let me take you into a detailed reading of the cases of churches and affiliated buildings that the Cabinet committee has looked into.
First, there are the churches and community buildings the legalisation of which was unconditionally approved by the committee. These have fulfilled all the requirements stipulated by the administrative bylaws of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches, which include providing ownership proof of the land, as well as proof of structural soundness and safety of the buildings, and complying with the civil defence regulations.
The committee also approved the legalisation of other churches and community buildings pending compliance with civil defence requirements within four months since the date the Cabinet approved their legalisation.
The legalisation of another number of churches and affiliated buildings hinged on their submission of documents proving ownership of the land over which the buildings were erected, and fulfilling the civil defence requirements, all within four months of the Cabinet’s decision. Only then would the Cabinet’s approval go into effect.
Churches and community centres that were found to be structurally unsound needed restoration. The committee said these buildings should present the necessary documents and drawings for the restoration work needed; these papers must carry the approvals of the relevant building authorities. Restoration must be then carried out in order for the buildings to measure up to the structural requirements needed and hence for legalisation.
Other Cabinet decisions concerned churches and buildings that may gain legality if they were structurally sound, but they were in such poor condition that they needed to be pulled down and rebuilt. Moreover, no proof of ownership was presented for most of these buildings. The Cabinet committee appears thus to have recognised them as churches or Church-affiliated buildings, but proof of ownership of the land they are erected on should be submitted, after which a demolition order may be issued, followed by erection of a new building which would then be a legally-recognised church or community service centre.
The Cabinet committee also approved legalisation of a number of churches and affiliated buildings on condition that the dues owed to the State should be paid, and that indisputable proof of land ownership should be submitted.
As for the churches or associated buildings erected outside the urban boundary, the Cabinet committee tackled each case separately, pointing out that the buildings in question did not comply with relevant legal requirements, either because the buildings stood outside the urban boundary, or were erected on State-owned land. Both constitute obvious legal violations which stand in the way of endowing these buildings with legality.
This reading into the two-year long process of legalising unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings has gone into details beyond the mere figures of approvals for legality. It clearly revealed that not a few cases that qualify for legality need to complete specific documents or procedures before they can gain legal status. In other cases, churches or affiliated buildings violated the urban boundary, or were built on land of disputed ownership or belonging to the State.
We must realise the unprecedented legal achievement represented by the 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches, and the Cabinet-affiliated committee it formed to look into legalising unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings. But we must also understand that they can only legalise those churches and buildings which legally qualify for legality. They cannot issue blanket approvals for unlicensed cases regardless of their compliance with the law.