Is reopening of Egypt’s ‘unlicensed’ churches a step toward sectarian stability?
The Egyptian Ministry of Housing has issued a decree allowing Christians to perform their prayers in unlicensed churches until they obtain permits as official houses of worship.
The decision came in response to requests submitted by representatives of Egypt’s main Churches at the committee formed in January 2017 to look into the legalization of unlicensed churches in accordance with law number 80 for the year 2016 on the construction of churches.
The Coptic Orthodox Church submitted a list of 2,600 churches and service centers that need to be official organized — 450 Anglican Churches and 120 Catholic Churches. While this step puts an end to the impasse that followed the closure of a few churches in Upper Egypt for lack of permits, it does not necessarily eliminate concerns over the eruption of more sectarian clashes.
According to the Bishop Michael Antoun, representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church at the committee in charge of legalizing unlicensed churches, representatives submitted the names of unlicensed churches to request a license.
“Our church submitted a list of 2,600 churches that needed to be legalized under the 2016 law and when we did not get the license we asked the state for an explanation,” he said. “The response was that those churches will work normally provided that their names are on the list on churches seeking license.”
The extremist threat to churches
Karim Kamal, president of the Union of Copts for Nation, said the ministry’s decision constitutes a positive step towards implementing the 2016 law on the construction of churches, which facilitates building and renovating churches and church-affiliated centers.
“However, it is important to note that the state, the governors, and the ministries of housing or interior were never our main concern,” he said. “In fact, all Copts remember how the state helped us in 2013, when the Armed Forces rebuilt the churches burnt down by the Muslim Brotherhood following the June 30 protests.”
The problem, Kamal explained, lies in extremist groups that wield influence in a considerable number of villages in the countryside and Upper Egypt.
“These groups are always ready to start clashes over churches, which in turn drives security forces to close those churches in an attempt to solve the problem,” he added, in reference to the closure in October 2017 of four churches in Minya governorate in Upper Egypt following attacks by Islamist extremists who objected to the use of houses as places of worship and the attack on another house turned into a church in Giza governorate in December 2017.
Journalist Hani Sabri Labib does not see the Ministry of Housing’s decision as a breakthrough, but rather argues that no development was made at all. “The 2016 law on the construction of churches states that unlicensed churches should be legalized, so the ministry’s decision not to stop prayers in these churches is not progress,” he said. “In fact, we are back to square one because licenses should have been issued by now, which is not the case.”
Labib noted that the committee in charge of looking into the status of unlicensed churches was formed four months after the law was issued, which meant that the churches lost one third of the year they were given to submit the necessary paperwork. “After submitting the lists and waiting, we expected to receive the licenses, but we only got a decision that prayers won’t stop, which was already a given,” he added.
“Christians pay for those delays as they are subjected to more attacks under the pretext that their houses of worship are not licensed.” Labib argued that official licenses are likely to reduce those attacks. Journalist Emad al-Din Hussein agrees with Labib as far as the repercussion of lack of permits are concerned. He cites the example of the attack that targeted a church in the district of Helwan in southern Cairo in December 2017.
“Because the church was not licensed, the owner of the building, who is supposed to be the victim was also arrested and will be tried, and the attackers were charged with vandalizing public property and not attacking a church, hence not treated as terrorists,” he wrote.
According to Hussein, the issue of unlicensed churches goes back to restrictions imposed on the construction of churches, which is to a great extent linked to the state’s inclination to avoid inciting sectarian violence usually triggered by building churches in areas where extremists are influential.
“The state tries to avoid provoking ultra-conservatives. Christians, therefore, are forced to turn their own private property into houses of worship and they are attacked for that too, and so on.”
High number of closed churches
According to Coptic lawyer Ihab Ramzi, the number of churches that have been closed for being unlicensed amounts to 258. “These churches are included in the lists and we are expecting them to be opened as part of the decision to resume prayers in unlicensed churches,” he said.
Journalist Hamdi Rizk said that the state should have at least opened several of the closed churches on the occasion of the Coptic Christmas, which falls on January 7 of every year. “This would have coincided with the opening of the Coptic Chrurch in the New Capital, hence delivering a strong message about the state’s stance vis-à-vis the Christian community,” he wrote.
“Since a closed church is a symbol of the triumph of sectarianism, opening those churches is the first step towards eliminating the excuse extremists use to target Christian houses of worship.”