EIPR criticizes closure of nine existing churches, affirms precarious state of right to worship, and calls for one Cabinet decree to regularize the status of all churches that applied to committee

Press Release

21 November 2018

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights today released “Pending Further Review: One Year of the Church Regularization Committee.” The report documents and analyzes the work of the committee to regularize the legal status of churches over the last year. It reviews the decree issued pursuant to the committee’s work and documents the sectarian attacks and security violations associated with Christian citizens worshipping in churches that have applied to the regularization committee for legal status.

The report covers the period from the deadline for applications to the committee on September 28, 2017 to the end of October 2018.

In the report, the EIPR documents 15 cases of sectarian violence and tension over the last year in connection with the legalization of 15 churches that had been functioning for several years with the knowledge of the security apparatus and local residents. In addition to the incidents the year before, there have been a total of 35 cases of sectarian tensions and violence since the church construction law was enacted.

Among these 15 incidents, nine churches were closed indefinitely and have not reopened. Two churches were reopened after the closure, one in Shubra al-Kheima a week after the incident and a second in the Minya governorate two and a half months later. In Zawiyet Sultan in Minya, residents were compelled to again worship in the old, dilapidated church while the adjacent new building, which had applied for status with the regularization committee, was shut down. In Dimshaw Hashem, the incident arose from objections to a local home being used as a church and the site was closed. Worship services continued to be held without interruption in the remaining two churches.

The incidents documented by the report typically followed one of two patterns: either state agencies shuttered the church absent any objections from local residents and despite officials’ knowledge of the church’s existence and the fact that Christians used it for worship, or the security apparatus or local government acquiesced to protests by some local Muslims who opposed the legalization of a certain church or services building and closed the church.

The report notes that in seven of the cases discussed, the Public Prosecution investigated and remanded suspects to custody. In five of these cases, the suspects were later released with or without bail. The prosecution leveled the same set of charges against Muslim and Christian defendants.

The report also examines the church legalization decrees issued so far. The Cabinet issued conditional decrees regularizing the status of 340 churches and buildings, out of a total of 3,730 applications filed by three Christian confessions to the regularization committee. Continuing at this pace, it will take the committee 12 years to review all applications.

Moreover, according to the Cabinet decrees, these approvals are not final and are conditional on the completion of other measures, including civil protection requirements. The report criticizes onerous civil protection measures, which have also been highlighted by some church officials who say the conditions are not applied to all other institutions around the church and are beyond their financial means.

The EIPR concluded that generally the right of worship and the right to build houses of worship are becoming more precarious. The stated purpose of the church construction law—to regularize the legal status of churches and facilitate the construction of new churches—has been wholly undermined. Existing churches have been shuttered, whether as a result of social pressure against recognized churches or at the initiative of security officials and local governments.

In the report recommendations, the EIPR advocates for a single Cabinet decree that would legalize the status of all churches that filed applications with the regularization committee, regardless of whether they meet the conditions set forth in the church construction law and without any further surveys or input from the security apparatus or local governing bodies.

The EIPR believes that such a decree would most faithfully enact the provisions of the church construction law, however flawed, as well as treat the causes of sectarian violence, which is largely rooted in bureaucratic obstruction and clear recalcitrance on the part of the security apparatus.

The EIPR also reiterated its demand for a wholesale revision of the church construction law, which is premised on discriminatory and sectarian logic. The legislation should be replaced with a new uniform statute regulating the construction of houses of worship on a non-discriminatory basis, to uphold the constitutional right of freedom of worship for all citizens.