World Watch Monitor

A 2016 law designed to make it easier to establish and build churches in Egypt has not eased the bottleneck, according to a new report.

The 12th December report, issued by the Project on Middle East Democracy, said approval of church building projects actually has slowed under the new law.

The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has authorised 508 churches, but given only eight a permit to build. Those eight represent “an approval rate that is actually lower than what occurred under President Hosni Mubarak, who was widely criticised for dragging his feet on church permits”, the report said.

Although a cabinet committee started to work on the legalisation of unlicensed churches in October, 2017, progress has been slow.

In August, 220 of 3,800 applicant churches had been registered and by October, 2018, another 120 had been registered, making a total of 340, or nine per cent. At that rate, it would take 12 years to complete all registrations, assuming no new applications were added.

In late November, the committee announced the legalisation of a further 168 churches, reported Daily News Egypt, bringing the total to 508. It added that the number of unlicensed churches in Egypt is approximately 5,000, of which 3,000 belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The new bill was supposed to end decades of complex bureaucracy that obstructed the construction and renovation of churches, which had resulted in a deterioration of church buildings and a shortage of places of worship for Christians.

As World Watch Monitor reported at the time, Christian MPs, human-rights advocates and researchers dismissed the law as an attempt to pacify Christians in the name of public order, while not effecting real change.

Coptic activists said the law singled out Christians, while the country needed a unified law on the building of places of worship that would treat the construction of churches on a level playing field with mosques.

The report by the Project on Middle East Democracy said the law had not dealt with the fundamental problem of churches seen as a security threat “that must be tightly managed [by the state] to avoid provoking conflict with Muslim communities”.

World Watch Monitor has reported repeatedly about instances where churches had to be closed as worshippers came under attack by local Muslims. Mob actions have provided a pretext that churches in process of being officially licensed cannot complete this process due to security concerns.

On 10th December police released 19 people from custody following a violent attack on Coptic-owned houses in Koum al-Raheb, following the opening of a new Coptic church in the village the prior Sunday, reported the Egyptian news site Mada Masr.

“We are not asking for anything major, we just want a place to pray,” an eyewitness said. “Christians and Muslims are brothers and friends, we visit each other during Ramadan and other occasions, but as soon as a church is built, there are problems.”

Following an attack, both religious communities are often encouraged to take part in a ‘conciliation process’ but it is an initiative that is viewed with suspicion by some Egyptian Christians. Rev Dr  Andrea Zaki, head of the Protestant Community of Egypt, said he  urges clergy not to take part  in the sessions,  because it renders the law “absent”.

A human-rights activist in Luxor, who spoke on condition of anonymity,  told World Watch Monitor  that  “the gathering of Muslims causing a shutdown of churches in the process of legalisation is bullying – not only of the Copts but also of the state".

"The non-implementation of the law has brought us a gang of hardliners who have become above the law.”