Egypt legalizes 156 church buildings; about 3,000 more awaiting approval

Security forces stand outside the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 10, 2017.
Security forces stand outside the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 10, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The Egyptian government legalized 156 more Christian churches and church-affiliated buildings last Tuesday as it continues to slowly make its way through thousands of applications from churches seeking legal recognition.

The 156 new church buildings approved by the federal government last week bring the total number of church buildings that have received legal status to 783 since the passing of a 2016 law regulating church construction.

The buildings were approved by a special government committee headed by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, Cabinet spokesperson Nader Saad told Egypt Today.

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Although 783 churches have received legal status since the passing since 2016, over 3,700 church buildings are waiting for approval in the Muslim-majority nation.

The 2016 law is the nation’s first law ever providing specific rules for the construction of Christian churches. At the time, some believed the law would make it easier for Christians to renovate churches while critics feared it could give too much power to local governments to deny church construction.

According to International Christian Concern, a U.S.-based nonprofit that monitors the persecution of Christians across the globe, the churches that have thus far received approval by the Egyptian government are ones that operated illegally prior to 2016 in buildings that have already been constructed.

ICC is concerned about reports suggesting that government approval of projects to build entirely new church buildings have “slowed considerably.”

Last April, Egypt’s former Prime Minister Sherif Ismail called for the church legalization process to be sped up. His call came as only 219 church buildings had been approved at that point.

Last October, it was reported that only 340 out of 3,730 applications had been approved. This meant that nearly 3,400 church buildings were still left waiting for approval two years after the church construction regulation was passed.

“Some Christians see the legalization of 783 churches as an improvement. Others, however, point to a contradictory narrative,” ICC notes. “For example, the government will not approve new churches, but will build the largest church in the Middle East in a location where no Christians live.”

Last December, the government committee approved 168 other churches and church buildings.

Egypt ranks as the 16th worst country in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.

“In Egyptian society, Islamic culture fuels discrimination and creates an environment causing the state to be reluctant to respect and enforce the fundamental rights of Christians,” an Open Doors fact sheet reads. “Though President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi has publicly expressed his commitment to protecting Christians, his government’s actions and extremist groups’ continued Christian persecution attacks on individuals and churches, leaving Christians feeling insecure and extremely cautious.”

Christians in Egypt have faced severe persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists affiliated with the Islamic State that have led to several killings over the last several years.

At least seven were killed and 20 others were injured when suspected Islamic State militants attacked buses leaving a desert Monastery near Minya last November.

That attack mirrored a similar attack that occurred in 2017 on a bus near the same monastery.

Twenty-nine people were killed in the 2017 attack, which was also claimed by the Islamic State’s affiliate group in Sinai. That group has also claimed responsibility for deadly church bombings that occurred in December 2016 and January 2017 as well as other attacks against Christians in Egypt.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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