Egyptian Muslim leaders are caught in a storm of controversy after a human rights group confronted them about a fatwa (Islamic edict) that stated the building of a church is "a sin against God."
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the highest official of religious law in Egypt, and the justice minister have issued an investigation of the jurists who issued the fatwa, according to Assyrian International News Agency.
The controversy began when the president of the Egyptian Union Human Rights Organization, Dr. Naguib Gabraeel, asked the Fatwa Council about a statement found in a textbook at Cairo University on inheritance and execution of wills.
Students, both Muslims and Christians, were taught "it is forbidden for a person to donate money for what would lead to sin, such as donating in his will money towards build[ing] a church, a nightclub, a gambling casino, towards promoting the alcohol industry or for building a barn for rearing pigs, cats or dogs."
Gabraeel asked the council what the sharia (Islamic law) position on the statement found in the textbook is. He asked if it is forbidden for a Muslim to donate money to build a church or a monk's quarters even if it is in the name of God and Christianity, which is recognized by the country's constitution. The Egyptian constitution claims to respect religious freedom. He also noted that wealthy Coptic Christian businessmen have donated towards the building of mosques.
The council replied by affirming the law found in the textbook and issuing a fatwa on it.
Included in the fatwa is an explanation on why it is a "sin" to build a church. According to the fatwa, Christians believe salvation is achieved through belief in Jesus as Lord while Muslims don't. Muslims believe that Issa [Jesus in Arabic] "is a slave of Allah and His Messenger, and that Allah is one."
The Islamic edict said God did not have a son and that Christianity deviated from absolute monotheism. Therefore, a Muslim is forbidden to donate funds towards a building that does not worship Allah alone.
The author of the textbook, Mohammed el-Maghrabbi, said it is sinful for even a Christian to devote money in his will towards building a church because it would be considered in Islam as separation from God.
In other words, it is illegal for even non-Muslims to offer money in their will towards building a church or synagogue.
The fatwa has upset many people, especially Coptic Christians, for categorizing churches with nightclubs, casinos, alcohol, and places to raise animals considered unclean by Islam.
After receiving the shocking response by the council, Gabraeel and a delegation from his human rights group visited the Grand Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi of the famous Al-Azhar University, a chief Sunni Islamic learning center in the world.
Tantawi contradicted the council and said "sharia does not prevent Muslims from donating to the building of a church, as it is his free money." He also went on to say sharia law does not interfere with other faiths "because religion, faith and what a person believes in is a relationship between him and his God."
Immediately after Tantawi's statements were publicized, there was a backlash from the Muslim community and he revoked his statements less than 24 hours after the visit by the human rights delegation. Tantawi claimed the delegation had misunderstood him, even though everything he said was recorded and sent to media outlets and uploaded on Coptic advocacy web sites.
Egyptian Christians see the controversy as explicitly revealing how religious authorities and the government truly feel about the building of churches. In Egypt, Christians are not allowed to construct or fix churches unless they receive a permit from governors. But usually authorities make excuses and circumvent giving a direct answer to requests for building permits. At the end, however, nearly all requests for permits in Egypt are denied.
In contrast, there are no such building permits necessary for the construction or fixing of mosques.