The Media Line

Egypt Weighs Easing Rules on Building New Churches

Written by David E. Miller
Published Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Regulations make it almost impossible for Copts to erect or repair their houses of worship

Egypt’s government is weighing changes to laws that make it virtually impossible for the country’s Christians to build or expand a church.

No law regulates erecting houses of worship, but building a new church in Egypt requires a presidential permit, as well as security clearance from Egypt's State Security Intelligence. The procedure can take years winding its way through Egypt’s bureaucracy or may never get approval at all.

"Even fixing a pipeline or mending a church wall requires a permit from the local governor. These permits can take years to attain," Nagib Gibra'il, a Coptic attorney and human rights activist, told The Media Line. "Muslims, on the other hand, get to build their mosques normally without restriction."

As a result, the ratio of churches to mosques is heavily balanced toward the latter. Christian Copts account for about 7% to 9% of Egypt's population of 80 million, but according to government sources, there are only 2,000 churches in Egypt, amounting to about 2% of all houses of worship, compared with 93,000 mosques.

That may change after Moufid Shihab, the state minister for legal and parliamentary affairs, told reporters Saturday that Egypt's government and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were discussing with the leaders of the Coptic Church a new "unified law on houses of worship" that would equate the legal status of churches and mosques in the country. 

Shihab's comments come amid deteriorating Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East. An attack on a Baghdad cathedral in October has spurred a Christian exodus, and Al-Qaida in Iraq has threatened Egypt’s Copts as well. Last month, Muslims set fire to homes owned by the family of a Copt alleged to have flirted with a Muslim girl. Copts complain that the public education system is entirely Islamic. Conversion to Christianity by Muslims is effectively banned in Egypt.

Church construction itself has inflamed inter-religious passions. In late November, hundreds of Copts clashed with security forces in the city of Omraniya near Giza, after police had stormed a construction site where an unlicensed church was being built. The clashes left two men dead and dozens injured.

Shehab, however, denied allegations that government mistreated Coptic citizens. "President Husni Mubarak has never refused a request to build a church, because he makes no distinction between church and mosque," Shehab told the Egyptian daily A-Shourouq.   

Mubarak's regime has been harshly criticized by civil rights groups inside the country and out for election rigging in the parliamentary ballot casting last month. The elections have also left a sour taste among many voters ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next September. But if the government hopes to win favor among Copts, it faces a wall of skepticism.

"For the past 15 years the parliament has been promising a new law, but nothing has happened," Gibra'il said. "It’s still unclear whether any law will emerge. It's all one big hoax."

Church-building is currently limited in Egypt by the notorious Ezabi decree of 1934, named after the deputy minister of interior at the time, Ezabi Pasha. The decree stipulates 10 conditions for erecting a church in Egypt, including no objection on the part of Muslim neighbors, a minimum distance of 100 meters (340 feet) from the nearest mosque and a minimum number of Christians living in the area.

Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based organization, said the tragic Giza events brought the issue of church building to the fore.

"A unified law, equating churches and mosques, would be a positive step but largely a symbolic one," he told The Media Line. "There are many other possible ways of solving the issue without a unified law."

"What matters isn’t necessarily a law, but de facto equality," Bahgat said. He added that equality could be achieved through an extra-legal presidential decree and especially by non-intervention by Egypt's security apparatus.

While new churches require a presidential nod, five years ago President Husni Mubarak delegated authority to the country's 26 governors to grant permits to Christian denominations seeking to expand or rebuild existing churches. But Bahgat said construction is still often blocked at the local level. 

"The real problem is Egypt's security apparatus," he said. "Many churches receive building permits after years of bureaucracy, only to find that local security officials refuse to implement the permit, citing security concerns."

The U.S. State Department's 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom cited many cases of church-building restrictions. According to the report, although religious freedoms are guaranteed in the constitution, the government restricts these freedoms in practice.

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