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Egypt: Christians Struggle to Rebuild Churches Despite 2016 Reform Law

There are around 300,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Egypt; like our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters, they suffer sporadic persecution, discrimination, and harassment, as well as official obstacles to the building of churches.

The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 2018 Annual Report, placed Egypt among its Tier 2 violators of religious freedom for “engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard for designation as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).”

The USCIRF report also notes that “as of early 2018, only 53 out of the 5,540 churches that applied had received approvals for renovation, construction, or registration under the 2016 Church Construction Law. Despite positive developments, the number of blasphemy cases filed against individuals increased in 2017 from 2016. In addition, human rights groups reported more than 120 sectarian attacks, including mob attacks against Christians and churches, and the lack of effective prosecution of perpetrators remained a serious concern.”

On top of all that, there is the ongoing struggle to build churches. Christians encounter opposition from government officials as well as local non-Christians. We remain in prayer for our Coptic Christian brethren as their difficulties in Egypt continue.

“Egypt’s Christians Struggle to Rebuild Churches Despite 2016 Reform Law,” by Jeffrey Cimmino, Washington Free Beacon, December 22, 2018:

Egypt’s Christians continue to struggle to get government approval for church building and repair projects despite the reforms implemented by a church construction law approved in 2016. A new report by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) concluded that “the positive impact” of the law “has been minimal.”

Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population—most belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. The country’s Christian community faces numerous legal and nonlegal obstacles to church construction.

“Local sensitivities” sometimes manifest in the form of Muslim community members opposing, even by violent means, the building of a church, according to the report. Security agencies also influence the process governing church construction and have been known to stop or limit construction and repairs in the interest of addressing genuine or apparent security threats.

Prior to 2016, the legal framework for church construction was rooted in decrees extending back to the mid-19th century. In the 1990s and early 2000s, President Hosni Mubarak made several changes to church construction laws but retained for himself the power to approve requests for new church construction.

In 2013, a military coup overthrew the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. The Coptic Orthodox Church supported the military due to concerns that the Brotherhood posed an existential threat to Egypt’s Christians. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, developed a strong relationship with Coptic Pope Tawadros II, making the time ripe for new reforms to church construction laws.

Kurt Werthmuller, a policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, acknowledged the commission still has many concerns about the status of Egypt’s Coptic community, but said Sisi, “at least ostensibly … has said things and made, sort of, grand gestures to the Coptic community that other Egyptian presidents either haven’t wanted to or haven’t bothered to do,” which has strengthened the relationship between the Coptic Church and the government.

Werthmuller pointed to Sisi attending Coptic Christmas liturgy as an example. “Those sorts of visible, public gestures are important for the Coptic Orthodox leadership,” he told the Washington Free Beacon.

In 2016, the Church Construction and Renovation Law (Law 80/2016) went into effect. Among its various provisions, the law “regulates the process of obtaining permits for constructing, expanding, modifying, renovating, reconstructing, and making external repairs to a church, a church annex, a service building, or an abbey,” and “mandates that the Cabinet of Ministers create a committee to oversee applications to legalize unlicensed churches and adjacent buildings such as abbeys, church annexes, and event halls.” That committee was created in 2017.

The POMED report outlines positive features of the law: It puts governors in charge of approving church construction, likely making the approval process easier since governors are easier to reach than the president; it requires a response to permit requests within four months instead of an indefinite period of time; and it allows religious rituals to be performed in unlicensed churches while their applications are being processed.

Claire Evans, regional manager for the Middle East at the nonprofit International Christian Concern, told the Free Beacon that control of application approvals by governors could be an issue “if the governor doesn’t like Christians.”

The law contains other problems, including its ambiguous requirement that a church should be “proportional to the size and needs of the community it serves.” The law does not define “‘proportional’ or ‘needs’ or who makes such a determination.”

Another issue is that security agencies are given “a legal role with regard to church issues for the first time in Egypt’s history” through their presence on the committee overseeing applications of unlicensed churches.

As for its practical effects, the law does not appear to have expedited the approval of church construction projects. As of last month, the government had issued only eight permits for new church construction, an approval rate that appears to be lower than during the administration of Mubarak. It should be noted, however, that no state entity has revealed how many permits have been requested or rejected.

Applications from unlicensed churches seem to be moving more quickly—508 have been recognized as houses of worship. But even this constitutes “only 14 percent of the total number of applications.”…

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