19th Century Ideas and Laws Govern the Use of Houses of Worship in Egypt

Press Release

24 December 2014

Under the title “Licensing Prayers: The crisis of places of worship in Egypt”, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights issued a position paper presenting a more comprehensive view on this crisis, far from restricting such to the issue of lacking laws governing the construction of worship buildings.

In the aftermath of the January 2011 Revolution, the controversy concerning the need for a law governing constructing places of worship in Egypt was renewed. Politicians, human rights activists, and reporters circulated proposals for a unified law. The debate has been restricted to the importance of the issuance of a legislation governing the regulation of building churches. Currently, there are discussions of some of the draft articles in light of the amended Egyptian Constitution.

With a view to this debate, EIPR observed that the underlying cause of this crisis is the continuation of administrative decisions rooted in institutional and jurisprudent conditions that have not been subject to any radical review since mid-nineteenth century. These conditions rather entrenched fundamental discrimination among Muslims and non-Muslims with respect to freedom of religious activity. No non-Muslim sect is entitled to practice religious rituals freely, except upon obtaining prior license from the Muslim ruler identifying this sect and the licensed location for the practice of religious rites.

“The issuance of legislation for churches in particular could relieve the crisis of building and renovating churches. However, in all cases, it represents the persistence of discriminatory policies between Muslims and Non-Muslims, regarding religious practices and places of worship”, said Amr Ezzat, the researcher and officer of Freedom of Religion and Belief in EIPR and the author of the paper, “Moreover, the renunciation of thinking about a unified law for places of worship compared to a law dedicated to churches solely is but proof of discriminatory policies and the reluctance of many agencies defending this discrimination.”

This perquisite of a license for practicing religion dates back to the policies at the time of the Caliphate rule, within the framework of “religious freedoms in Islam”, according to which Muslims were deemed superior to non-Muslims in their state. Moreover, religious freedoms of all other religious groups were subject to licensing by Muslims via a Muslim ruler or the deputy thereof. As such, originally, access to any religious rights for non-Muslims was an exception of the restrictions and was practiced within a framework of discrimination and inequality. This is indeed a framework distinct and contradictory to the framework of religious freedom established by constitutions and human rights standards – within which the freedom of religion and belief and the practice of rights by any group of believers of any religion take place within the context of equality and non-discrimination.

The paper also shows that the framework of “freedom of religion in Islam” is still linked to the Ottoman Hamayouni Decree issued in 1856, regulating licensing the practice of religious activities for non-Muslims and the “acknowledgement” of such sects prior to enabling any religious rights thereto. Moreover, this Decree is entrenched in the Constitutional restriction of the freedom of places of worship to the followers of the “three monolithic religions”, while considering all other religions “unacknowledged”, as indicated by many court rulings presented by the paper. The same framework still applies to the policies of managing Islamic affairs as indicated by a former study issued by EIPR tilted “To whom are the pulpits today? State policies regarding the management of mosques.”

The paper makes several recommendations for a comprehensive reform of policies safeguarding freedom of religion, including revocation of any impact of the Ottoman Hamayouni Decree that stipulates the issuance of a license to practice religion to non-Muslims by the head of state. This needs to be replaced by sufficing with the issuance of a license from competent state agencies, without any further new legislation providing for controls over the specifications and locations of places of worship. The former should rather be left to the members of the religious group and other urban controls as identified by regulatory bodies – of course with equal treatment to mosques and churches for that matter.

As a substitute to using security reports as reference to grant or deny permission for assuming places of worship, the paper also recommends the promotion of the role of the “discrimination commission” proposed by the Constitution to monitor the operations of the administrative body and its licenses, and any bias or discrimination on their part. The paper also recommends that the security agencies stand up for any sectarian reactions to the attempt of using a place for worship, instead of using potential sectarian conduct as a justification for obstructing the issuance of licenses.

To read the paper in Arabic  click here