Egyptian Lawmakers Approve New Church Building Law

A general view shows members of the Egyptian parliament attending the opening session at the main headquarters of Parliament in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Egypt’s parliament approved on a long debated law that governs building and renovating churches that used to trigger repeated attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority, reported Reuters.

Egyptian Christians make up about a tenth of the country’s 90 million population, according to uncertified reports.

The new law delegates more authority to provincial governors to approve church building and renovation permits that was previously the realm of security services.

Church officials see it as a step in the right direction but human rights advocates and some Christian Members of Parliament said it was prejudiced.

Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said,”This is a sectarian law that shows the state prefers the adherents of one religion over another.”

Ibrahim said,”A unified law would show that the state protects the rights of all its citizens equally.” He added, “It would send a message to extremists.”

Activists have long campaigned for a unified places of worship law to govern mosques and churches.

From their point of view, the law on mosque building, issued in 2001, is much less restrictive and only discusses issues of land ownership and building regulations.

In contrast, the law approved on Tuesday stipulates that the size of a church must be proportional to the number of Christians in an area which Ibrahim says is problematic.

As a result, this condition can create problems in the future because the Egyptian government does not make the official number of Christians public in its census as the Christians have long complained of being under counted.

Emad Gad, a Christian MP, demanded the stipulation be removed, but it was enclosed into the final version of the law, reported Reuters.

The law grants a governor the right to deny a building or renovation permit which was described as “poisonous” during the debate by MP Reda Nadeef, a Christian.

However, Bishop Makarios -the highest Coptic Orthodox Church official in Minya, a southern province home to Egypt’s largest Christian community- said, “The law is suitable provided officials are well-intentioned.”

This was echoed by officials from other sects. The law is “a massive jump after 160 years of legislation governing church building and renovation,” said Father Rafik Greish, a spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church, referring to the Ottoman-era laws governing this matter.

On the other hand, all nine representatives from the ultra-conservative Islamist Nour Party voted against the law.

Nour MP Ahmed al-Agrawy said,”Our country is Islamic, the constitution does not say it is Christian. When the West treats mosques the way they treat churches, we will say: yes.”

Sectarian violence often erupts on the background of suspicions that Christians are building churches.