In a landmark ruling, Egypt’s parliament has approved a long-awaited new law which is hoped will make it easier to build and restore churches. A two-thirds majority of MPs voted in favour of the bill on Tuesday (30 August) following a heated four-hour debate. The decision represents a significant breakthrough as the construction of churches has been tightly regulated by a decree issued in 1856 during the Ottoman Empire.
A draft bill was approved by Egypt’s three main denominations (Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic) in August, only for subsequent amendments to be made unexpectedly which drew criticism from some Christian groups. However, last Thursday (25 August) Egypt’s cabinet released a statement saying that following further discussions a draft bill had been agreed in “full consensus” with representatives of the country’s three major denominations.
This was then followed by the vote on Tuesday, prior to which the speaker of Egypt’s parliament, Ali Abdel-Al, had said, “This is a historic law and I urge all MPs to attend tomorrow’s session to see how the crescent and the cross will embrace each other.” He continued, “It will be recorded in history that it is your parliament that decided to discuss this law” and “It will be a big victory for both parliament and the government to issue such a law.”
Until now, the construction of churches has been strictly regulated in Egypt under laws dating back to 1856 when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, according to which Christians had to obtain the sultan’s permission to build new churches. This was further tightened in 1934 when the Deputy Interior Minister, al-Ezabi Pasha, issued a decree with ten further conditions that must be met before permission could even be applied for. Applications for permission to build churches have often taken many years to be considered and after the long wait the answer could often be “no”.
But under the new changes any request for a new church building “must” be considered by local governor, who have to issue a response within four months of the application being submitted.
However, the law has not been universally welcomed in parliament, even by some Christian MPs who believe it remains too restrictive, notably Article 2 which stipulates that the size of a new church must be in proportion to the number of Christians in the neighbourhood. Other Christian MPs have acknowledged that whilst there remains room for improvement the law is a step forward. Margaret Azer, a Christian and deputy chairman of the human rights committee, said, “We hope these negative points will be eliminated in the future, but in any case this law is a good step.”
Only time will tell just how significant Tuesday’s decision really is. Egypt’s Christian community has suffered a spate of attacks in recent months, some of which have stemmed from rumours that churches are being constructed. At the local level it is vital that the relevant authorities are diligent in following both the spirit and letter of the new law, and not bowing to any outside pressure to ignore it.