In News & Reports

By Mada Masr –

Over two days in late January, dozens of Coptic Christian residents of the village of Ezbet Farag Allah in Minya staged a demonstration in front of the Diocese of Samalut to demand government approval for the construction of a church in their village to replace their place of worship which burned down in 2016, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

A week later, on January 30, security forces arrested at least nine residents from the village in response to the demonstration, according to the Egyptian Front for Human Rights. Five of those arrested were eventually brought before the State Security Prosecution and at least one of them, Mounir Halim, was ordered into remand detention for 15 days on charges of organizing an illegal gathering and committing a terrorist act.

The protest and arrests are just the latest incidents in a hot-button issue of sectarian discrimination in Egypt, where the country’s Christian minority has struggled against government policies that severely restrict the building and renovation of churches.

For years, the small Church of St. Joseph and Abu Sefein in Ezbet Farag Allah had served as the only house of worship for some 800 Christians in the village. In 2016, the church burned down under unexplained circumstances, forcing residents to travel several kilometers to the church in the next village to fulfill any religious function, including attending prayers or holding funeral services.

Little changed until April 2021, when the Cabinet issued a decision to reconcile the legal status of 82 churches and affiliated buildings, including the one in Ezbet Farag Allah. Against the background of the decision, the church applied for a demolition permit from the governorate to demolish the remains of the church, which was approved and implemented in July. The decree restored a sense of hope among village residents that a new church would be built to replace the one they had lost to the fire.

However, when they submitted a request for reconstruction, they received no answer, in violation of the 2016 church building law, which sets out a four-month deadline for a response to be issued for such requests, according to Ishak Ibrahim, a religious freedom researcher at EIPR.

The laws regulating the construction of churches in Egypt have long been criticized by rights groups as preventing Christians from exercising their right to worship. Bureaucratic restrictions in place effectively prevent new churches from being built, leading Christians in some areas to unofficially designate apartment buildings as houses of worship. This has often sparked violence and sectarian strife that is typically resolved by authorities overseeing customary reconciliation sessions instead of legally prosecuting any perpetrators. In many cases, the reconciliation sessions conclude with agreements to shut down the church on the promise that a permit will be granted when papers are filed, only for the requests to be ultimately denied by authorities, according to EIPR.

In 2016, a new law was passed to regulate the construction and renovation of churches. The legislation was heralded by government officials and some sections of the Christian ecclesiastical leadership as a way to facilitate church construction and the registration of thousands of places of worship built without a permit. 

Yet EIPR criticized the law at the time, arguing that it codifies discrimination against Christians by setting out difficult conditions for the approval of new churches and investing the power to regulate church construction to the security establishment, which it the initiative called, “a surefire recipe for reproducing the drivers of sectarian violence.

After the law was adopted, the Cabinet formed a senior committee in 2017, primarily consisting of government officials and only one representative of the Christian community, tasked with examining requests to renovate old churches and register them, along with facilitating the building of new churches across the county.

Official tallies of the number of permits issued are difficult to come by. Before the 2016 law, any permits for new church construction had to be published in the Official Gazette. Since then, the only information comes in occasional Cabinet reports citing an overall count. 

Despite some early momentum, the committee’s work gradually slowed down, according to Ibrahim. The numbers bear this out. Between May 2018 and January 2022, the government issued 22 decrees to reconcile or build 2,162 churches and affiliated structures. However, the rate at which permits have been issued has slowed down considerably over that period.

Moreover, a total of 5,540 churches and religious buildings submitted their papers to the authorities over that time period, meaning that the committee only processed less than 40 percent of the requests it received.

Many of the approvals were also contingent on certain criteria, including requiring the church to install electronic gates, a fire alarm system and emergency exits. “In some areas, such requirements may be important, but they are impractical and inappropriate for small, rural churches and meeting them is beyond their financial capacities. It should be noted that state institutions in these areas are not required to comply with these same conditions,” EIPR said in a 2020 press release.

Many of the permits were issued in new cities being built by the government, where licensing is easier, or in cities with a large Christian population, but far less have been issued in towns and villages where Christians are a small minority, according to Ibrahim. The state’s overall approach toward the building and registering of churches has left a large segment of Christians in villages across the country without places of worship close to their homes.

“It brings us back to an earlier stage, during which informally established churches grew and prayers were practiced without official approval,” Ibrahim said. “This, in turn, reproduces the same problem that the 2016 law was supposed to solve.” 

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  • Mohamed Aboul-Seoud, Ph.D.

    What happens to my Christian brothers and sisters is so unfair and should stop immediately.

    There should be no restrictions on constructing Houses of God. Believers of any faith can’t accept these atrocities.

    As a Muslim I denounce these unfair laws and condemn everyone engaged in them. I also call for the Egyptian authorities to to release everyone detained during these demonstrations for those standing up for their God-given rights.

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