EIPR criticizes slow rate of church legalization: Three years later, the church construction law has failed to resolve sectarian tensions related to worship
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said that three years after its adoption, the church construction law has failed to end violations of Christians’ right to worship and address related sectarian tensions. It criticized the security apparatus for shutting down church buildings and thereby prohibiting many Copts in Egyptian villages from engaging in collective worship. Most recently, Copts in Faw Bahri, located in the Dashna district of the Qena governorate, were prevented from holding their New Year’s prayer services in a village building they had been using for worship services for four months.
The EIPR added that the process to regularize the legal status of churches is moving at a glacial pace and lacks transparency. Although the Egyptian government announced last week that it had regularized 1,412 churches and subsidiary buildings, these were preliminary status approvals that are conditional on demolition and reconstruction procedures, resolving state claims, and meeting civil protection requirements. The EIPR has learned that final approvals have been issued for less than 200 churches and subsidiary buildings.
The number of preliminary status approvals granted since the adoption of the law in September 2016 accounts for just 25 percent of the churches and subsidiary buildings that applied for legal status (5,540 applications). At this rate, it will take nine more years for all applicants to receive simply conditional legal status.
The church construction law, issued on 28 September 2016, addressed two major points. Firstly, it made governors responsible for the approval of the construction of new churches, stipulating that a non-response to applications within a certain time frame would be considered implicit approval for the construction of the church. At the same time, it made such approval contingent on security considerations and made the size of approved churches dependent on the number of Christian residents in the area and their proximity to the nearest church. Secondly, the law provided for the legalization of existing churches without official permits, establishing a committee to grant status composed of the prime minister, nine security and executive officials, and a church representative, although without any independent experts.
The EIPR has documented at least 36 cases of sectarian tension and violence since the church construction law went into effect and through the end of 2019, all of them associated with the worship practices. In the same period, interventions by various state institutions led to the closure of 25 churches and the prohibition of collective worship services in the areas in question. In many of these cases, customary reconciliation sessions were convened that concluded with agreements to shut down the church while promising to grant the necessary permits when papers were officially filed. Yet, when church officials applied for official permits, state agencies refused to grant permits or allow them to organize religious services or mass.
The EIPR renews its criticism of the security establishment shutting down churches that are regularly used for worship on the grounds that they lack official permits. This is a violation of Article 8 of the Law 80/2016 on the construction of churches, which states that religious services in existing churches and religious buildings will be allowed to continue unimpeded even if the facility does not have the requisite permit or does not meet the conditions for legal status. This was affirmed in a letter sent from the head of the Housing Ministry’s construction and public relations sector to Father Mikhail Anton, the representative of the Coptic Orthodox community on the church regularization committee, on 6 January 2018. The letter stated that 14 governors had been instructed not to suspend any religious services in churches that had applied for legal status with the church regularization committee in that governorate.
The EIPR again calls for the issuance of a single decree to grant final legal status to all churches and subsidiary buildings that applied for status with the church regularization committee. We also urge the passage of a uniform law on houses of worship that would recognize all Egyptians’ right to freely worship without administrative barriers.
I. Security directives: holiday prayers prohibited in the church in Faw Bahri, located in the Dashna district of the Qena governorate -31 December 2019
The security apparatus prevented Copts in Faw Bahri, located in the Dashna district of the Qena governorate, from holding the New Year’s Eve prayer on Tuesday, 31 December, in the home of a local Copt. Several Copts gathered in the building and complained about being prohibited from completing the prayer.
A priest in Dashna told the EIPR:
The building that security shut down and prevented prayer inside of is owned by a village Copt and has been used for worship services for four months. Security promised to rapidly secure a building permit for a new church on a 460-meter tract of land purchased by the church a while back. All the necessary surveys have been conducted by official bodies and a wall was built around the plot. All that is needed to start construction is the permits. The closest church to the village is 10 km away, in the village of al-Qasr al-Sayyad, known as Deir al-Balamoun.
Things in the village are stable and totally under control, but there was no New Year’s Eve prayer, on Monday 6 January, in the building due to security directives. Prayers had been held in the building four months earlier. They continued for two and half months then they ceased, based on a demand from security. With the Christmas holidays coming, preparations began for prayer and the celebration. Then came New Year’s Eve and what happened, even though the church had notified security of it advance.
The priest added that 3,000 Christians live in the village and used to pray at the house that was shuttered by security. They are all waiting for security to keep its promise to issue permits for the construction of a new church.
Regarding a fire that began as the church was shut down, the church pastor said:
All of a sudden a fire started in the home of Christian on the other side of the town. No one knows the cause, and security dragged its feet in putting it out. Four brothers were arrested and questioned. They were released two days later and went home. Two other people are still detained. [Raziqi Khalaf was referred to the Public Prosecution and Bassem Eissa is still in State Security custody.] They were arrested because they wrote about the incident on social media and they arrested them.
In April 2006, the village was the site of sectarian attacks after local Muslims refused to allow the construction of a church in town. Following rumors that Copts were about to build a church, Copts’ homes were attacked and four of them set on fire. Two shops were also attacked. At the time, Copts held worship services in the building of an association legally established 70 years earlier and registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs. The building was made of mudbrick and offered services to local Copts such as Sunday school, lectures, and social activities. Due to the building’s dilapidated state, an application was filed and a permit to renovate it was obtained. Attacks on Copts began during the demolition works, after which it was agreed in a customary reconciliation session to suspend the permits. All construction came to a halt.
Since that time, local Copts have had nowhere to pray. More than a year ago, the bishopric’s lawyers, using the legal channels prescribed in Law 80/2016 on the construction of churches, applied with the Qena governor for a permit to build a church, including all the necessary documentation in the application.
II. Legalization for existing churches and subsidiary buildings
On Tuesday, the Cabinet announced that the main committee for the regularization of churches’ legal status had legalized 90 churches and associated buildings, bringing the total of legalized structures to 1,412.
Before the deadline on 28 September 2017, 5,540 applications had been filed for licenses for existing religious structures that regularly hosted and offered worship services and activities and were known to state institutions. Due to long-standing restrictions on church construction, numerous churches had been established over the decades without official recognition from the Ottoman Porte, the king, or later the president. Churches were also often established with the oral consent of the security apparatus and operated for decades without official papers. Some of these facilities looked like conventional churches while others were meeting halls or homes in which prayer services were regularly held. In its work, the church regularization committee deals with individual buildings rather than a church complex or site, which may consist of several buildings, such as a church, a services building, and a rectory.
The Cabinet has issued 13 decrees, based on the opinion of the church regularization committee, since the committee began its work. These decrees granted preliminary legal status to 1,412 churches and associated buildings, or 25 percent of total applicants.
These approvals are not final, however. Rather, they are contingent on the fulfillment of additional, often onerous, conditions, including civil protection requirements like the installation of a fire alarm system, electronic monitoring gates, and emergency exits. In some areas, such requirements may be important, but they are impractical and inappropriate for small, rural churches, and meeting them is beyond their financial capacities. It should be noted that state institutions in these areas are not required to comply with these same conditions.
The regularization committee has not published the standards or criteria it uses to organize its work or make its decisions, a deadline for completing the review of all applications, or procedures that may be taken if an application is denied.
III. Construction of new churches
According to numerous statements obtained by EIPR researchers, no official decrees were issued for the establishment of new churches, and the Official Gazette has published no decrees for the construction of new churches. Yet, several legal representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church have filed applications for the construction of churches in areas populated by Christians but lacking churches, seeking the competent governor’s approval after meeting all necessary conditions. The authorities have failed to respond to these applications, whether to grant or deny the license, although under the law, the governor is required to respond within four months and to state cause if he denies the application.