Controversial Church-Building Law a Focal Point for Egypt's Coptic Voters

Egypt's Coptic Christians fear they could face further persecution should an Islamist candidate win next week's presidential elections, as frontrunners vying for leadership stem from the Sharia-leaning Muslim Brotherhood. One of the major issues on their agenda is a controversial law that puts heavy restrictions on building and maintaining Christian houses of worship.

The emerging top Islamist candidates in the race include Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood; Salafist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail; and the Muslim Brotherhood's own Khairat Al-Shater, who said in April that Sharia should become the ultimate law of the land.

Meanwhile, some Copts are hoping that candidate Ahmed Shafiq, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's prime minister and a former military commander, would be the one to help end the discriminatory rules concerning building churches, Reuters reported this week.

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The church-building policy in Egypt has been the subject of a heated Muslim-Christian debate for years. Controversial legislation makes it easy to build a mosque but hard to raise or even repair a church. A new mosque only needs a permit from the local district, while a church needs additional paper work signed by the president himself.

The law goes back to the 19th century, Kurt J. Werthmuller, Research Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, told The Christian Post via email. However, as far as the law may have been seen as progressive then, "in the context of contemporary Egypt, it has meant that Coptic Christians have been required to submit presidential petition to not just build new churches, but to expand, renovate, or even make simple repairs in existing ones," Werthmuller said.

In 2005, Mubarak altered the policy by issuing a presidential decree that delegated the authority for such permissions to the nation's governors.

"This meant," Werthmuller explained, "that if a village priest had to repair a broken toilet or cracked wall in his church, he would still have to go a high regional executive for permission. Even then, it's worth noting, he would have to navigate a labyrinth of paperwork and corrupt bureaucracy, and often face clerical workers that could easily 'lose' the petition in the process."

Finally, even if a church was initially granted permission for building, renovation, or repair, the possibility remained that it would have to contend with the threat of village mobs, angered at Christian improvements and often provoked by local Salafi preachers, the research fellow added.

Many Copts reportedly look toward the new president for a solution to the problem, as well as a guarantee of an end to violence against their community.

According to a recent poll, a majority of Coptic Christians in Egypt support candidate Amr Moussa, a moderate Muslim, one-time Arab League chief and former foreign minister under Mubarak. The poll, conducted by the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations (EUHRO), also showed that all participants completely rejected Salafist candidate Ismail, as well as Al-Shater.

Religious minorities in Egypt also suffered discrimination under former President Mubarak, but they reportedly fear the rise of Islamists even more, especially following violence against the Coptic Christian community immediately after Mubarak was toppled in the Arab Spring revolution of Jan. 2011. The Copts blame ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims for a surge of attacks on churches and worry that an Islamist head of state would make life more difficult for them.

Moussa, the more moderate candidate, attempted in a recent television debate to assure voters of his good will toward respecting the rights of religious minorities and the fairness of Sharia law toward the whole of society. He insisted in the nation's first televised presidential debate that the general principles of Islamic law should be implemented as they existed in the pre-Mubarak, 1971 constitution.

A senior Orthodox Coptic Church official said recently that six million Copts are among the 50 million voters eligible to go to the polls on May 23 and 24, and again next month in a run-off if no candidate scores more than 50 percent in the first round. The Christian vote might swing the outcome, experts have reportedly said.

Meanwhile, Islamist politicians who already dominate Egypt's parliament claimed during the presidential campaigns that Christians, who form about a tenth of Egypt's 82 million mostly-Sunni Muslim population, would not be sidelined no matter the outcome.

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