Egypt builds Middle East’s largest cathedral, but what about smaller churches?
Not only did 2019 witness the inauguration of Egypt’s largest church and mosque in the New Administrative Capital, it kicked off with the legalization of 80 churches and service buildings in the country, bringing the number of legalized Christian houses of worship to a total of 627.
But the number of legalized churches, which come up to 508 as of December 2018, is still minimal compared to the 3,800 requests sent to government, according to a report issued by the Project on Middle East Democracy. They said that the rate at which legalization is finalized, and construction or renovation permits are obtained is rather slow.
In September 2016, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued the Church Construction and Renovation Law, which is meant to address the longstanding demands of Egypt’s Christian communities for a more just and streamlined system of obtaining permits to build, renovate, and repair churches.
Following the ratification of this law, a committee was established in 2017 to look into applications submitted by Christian congregations, as well as to decide whether to legalize churches constructed without a permit or houses informally used for prayers and religious services.
The committee includes ministers of housing, urban development, defense, justice, antiquities, and parliamentary and legal affairs, as well as representatives of different churches and security entities. But as the law, the committee, and measures taken on the ground seem quite promising, they are hardly devoid of problems.
A long process
While praising the law and commending the state on its efforts in implementing it, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Morcos of Shubra al-Khaima said that there are still thousands of churches and affiliated buildings that need to be legalized. He also noted that the process itself takes a long time.
“According to the law, the governor under whose jurisdiction the church falls should respond to our request within four months, but in many cases there is no response. We don’t know what should be done in this case,” he said. “We’re hoping that this is happening now because the law is still quite new and that in a while, procedures will be expedited.”
Reverend Andrea Zaki, head of the Protestant community in Egypt, also commented on the time the legalization process takes.
“We submitted requests for 1,070 churches and service buildings and we have so far got approval for 82 churches, which means we’re approaching 10 percent,” he said. “But we’re hoping that procedures will be faster in the coming phase.”
According to the Project on Middle East Democracy’s report, bureaucracy might have played a major role in the slow process.
“One likely reason is that implementation of the law is taking place within a bureaucracy that remains extremely inefficient. To gain legal status, for example, unlicensed churches must provide a wealth of information that must be verified by local representatives and then reviewed by senior officials of the nine government bodies represented on the legalization committee.”
The report added that neither the law nor the actions that followed have so far been capable of addressing “system problems hindering Christians’ freedom of worship.” These include, the report explained, “unlawful church closures, harassment of worshippers by security agencies, failure to protect churches from terrorist and sectarian violence, and security agencies’ reliance on reconciliation sessions, outside the justice system, to ‘resolve’ local conflicts around churches.”
Rules and regulations
On the other hand, the Coalition of Egyptian Parties, which includes 46 political parties, said that the growing number of legalized churches is bound to reduce sectarian conflicts in different parts of Egypt.
“Clashes between Muslims and Christians, especially in Upper Egyptian villages, were attributed to performing religious ceremonies in churches with no construction permits, or in buildings that were not meant to be used for religious purposes in the first place,” said a statement issued by the coalition. “The legalization of those places will endow them with an official status, hence protect both the places of worship and the worshippers.” The legalization, the statement added, is also contingent upon complying with all the necessary safety measures required by the committee in charge of the process. “This means that those buildings will be safer,” the statement noted.
However, a report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, stated that the particular specifications required, including these safety measures, are one of the main reasons for the delay. They said mandatory specifications such as fire safety and alarm systems, are bound to take time.
“If the committee continues at this rate, it will need 12 years to respond to all submitted requests,” the report said.
The report quotes Abbot Mikhail Anton, the representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the legalization committee, as saying that according to the law, unlicensed churches that submitted legalization requests cannot be closed, yet this is not the case on the ground.
“We still witness cases of church closures because of pressure by local extremists,” he said. The report argued that dealing with churches on a case-by-case basis will cause more delays, hence problems and clashes are bound to persist. “The only solution to this problem is for the committee to approve all submitted requests in one single decision then deal with conditions and specifications after. “Such a step will undoubtedly curb sectarian violence, which is still thriving thanks to bureaucratic delays and approval conditions.”
Journalist Rania Saad made an estimate of the number of churches that require legalization based on the requests submitted to the committee. The Coptic Orthodox Church submitted requests for 2,600 churches and service buildings, the Catholic Church 119, the Anglican (Protestant) Church 1,070, the Episcopal Church 15, and the Adventist Church 5.)
But even with these statistics, el-Sisi’s move to open the Middle East’s largest cathedral, as dubbed by the government, was seen as a symbolic message of tolerance in the predominantly Muslim nation, and a glimpse of hope for Christians in the country.