Egypt Considers Easing Church Construction Policy

Egypt is considering changing its policy on the construction of new churches by making all houses of worship equal in the eyes of the law.

State minister for legal and parliamentary affairs Moufid Shihab told reporters Saturday that the government is discussing with Coptic Church leaders about a potential "unified law on houses of worship" that would give churches and mosques the same legal rights, according to Middle East-focused news organization, The Media Line.

Currently, not only is it virtually impossible for Christians to build new churches in Egypt, but also difficult to repair existing buildings. Construction of a new church requires a presidential permit and security clearance, while repairs demand permission from the local governor and security force. Permission requests for construction or repair take years given the roundabout bureaucratic web and mostly end up being denied or dropped altogether.

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Muslims, however, can build new mosques or repair existing ones freely without having to obtain permits.

The rule that requires a license to build or rebuild churches is one of the biggest complaints Egyptian Christians have against the government's favoritism towards Muslims.

Simple repairs such as fixing a church's cracked floor resulted in local police hitting three Coptic Christian women in the village of Deshasha, south of Cairo, in 2008, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). And Egyptian officials arrested 13 Christians in 2007 for collecting donations to rebuild a church in the southern city of Saqulta without a permit.

Most recently, reportedly 2,000 security forces clashed with hundreds of Christians constructing a church in Cairo's Giza district on Nov. 24. Some 200 Christians were arrested with about 70 having been released so far. The conflict resulted in at least two deaths and dozens injured, including some 20 people who were blinded in at least one eye by the violence, according to Christian Aid Mission. More than 25 homes in the surrounding Christian neighborhood were also burned.

Giza Governor Gen. Sayyed Abdel Aziz told reporters that the Christian builders lacked a permit to turn a Christian community center into a church. But the Church Diocese of Giza refuted the governor's explanation.

"The Governor of Giza gave instructions to modify the services building to a church building, but a decision by the Chief of the District to halt construction and remove the irregularities angered the people, who congregated next to the building, fearing that the district authorities would cause damage to it, triggered the events and the clashes," said the Church Diocese of Giza.

Nagib Gibra'il, a Coptic attorney and human rights activist, noted a big problem in Egypt's church building and repair policy is that even if officials grant permits they are not respected by local security officials, who cite security concern.

"For the past 15 years the parliament has been promising a new law, but nothing has happened," Gibra'il remarked pessimistically to The Media Line. "It's still unclear whether any law will emerge. It's all one big hoax."

There are only about 2,000 churches, which make up about two percent of all houses of worship, for the nine percent of Egypt's population that are Christian. By comparison, there are 93,000 mosques.

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