Abbaseya Cathedral - Picture by Noor Noor

Houses of Worship in Egypt: An Enduring Source of Inequity

In the first-ever meeting in modern Egyptian history between a president and representatives of all of the country’s Christian institutions to discuss Christian matters, one of the most pressing topics discussed involved setting forth a legislative scheme to govern the construction of houses of worship. Historically, Egypt’s mosques have been rarely regulated, allowing Muslims to construct and repair places of worship with ease and without much government intervention. ((Although all mosques must be licensed by the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, tens of thousands of mosques remain unsupervised by the Ministry and function without much oversight and/or crackdown.)) However, the same approach has not been afforded to the country’s churches, reflecting an age-old inequity that exists between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian populations. While the destruction of tens, if not hundreds, of Egyptian churches made international headlines in the aftermath of the Raba’a al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-in dispersals, this attention did not create enough pressure to pave the way for adequate rebuilding efforts of said-churches and the reform of relevant legislation. Today, even less attention is paid to the country’s Christian population, which continues to face increasing levels of marginalization due to oft-occurring kidnaps, exorbitant requests for ransom money, and bombings outside of churches and Christian institutions.

Just one month after the meeting between the country’s Christian leaders and President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, Christian lawyer Nabil Luka Bibawi filed a lawsuit to compel the Prime Minister and Justice Minister to form a committee made up of Azhar and church leaders to write the outline for a law that would facilitate church construction and, perhaps, provide a unified legal scheme by which to govern the construction of all houses of worship alike. Attempts to draft a single law to equalize the playing field between mosques and churches made headlines in 2011 and 2012, but these efforts were largely unsuccessful and the legal dichotomy remains a serious source of inequity.

Article 64 of the Egyptian Constitution mandates that the establishment of places of worship be governed by the law, and Article 235, a transitional provision, also states that in its first legislative term, the upcoming House of Representatives will issue a law organizing the building and renovation of churches. With the president currently retaining all parliamentary powers in the absence of a House of Representatives, such a law has not yet been drafted. Further, the language of the constitutional article seems to imply that even when drafted, the law governing the construction of churches will be distinct from the existing procedures governing the construction of mosques, thus failing to resolve the problem.

Historically, the Hamayouni Law of 1856 and the 1934 corollary, called the Azabi Decree, have governed the building and renovation of churches, establishing that the king (later the President) would need to approve the building and/or renovation of every single church (and synagogue) in the country and issue a presidential decree accordingly. The Azabi Decree lays out 10 logistically-challenging and blatantly discriminatory requirements for the building of churches that include but are not limited to ensuring that churches maintain a distance of 100 meters from every mosque, that Muslim locals approve the building of churches in any Muslim-dominated regions, that proof of the number of Christians in said-construction site be verified, and that the Ministry of Irrigation and/or Railroad Authority provide explicit permission for churches being constructed in proximity to railroads, bridges, and/or public utilities.

This scheme continued largely unaffected until 1999, when Presidential Decree 453 made the repair of all places of worship subject to a 1976 civil construction code. Although the decree made mosque and church repairs technically subject to the same laws, anecdotal evidence suggests that authorities enforced the laws in a significantly stricter manner for churches. In 2005, an amendment came in the form of Presidential Decree 291 (which cancelled Presidential Decree 453 of 1999) maintained basically all of the Hamayouni Law and Azabi Decree requirements, only bringing change in the form of an allowance for churches to be able to conduct basic repairs without waiting for government approval. The decree, while allowing the president to maintain exclusive authority over the approval of the building of any new churches, mandated that governors approve all rebuilding efforts and/or expansions of existing churches; governors would also be required to submit detailed explanations for any rejections of applications. Painted by the state as a step to ease the restrictions on Egypt’s Christian population, in reality the decree incorporates vague language that has been abused to discriminate against Christians and limit their abilities to establish places of worship, marking almost no difference from the archaic scheme that was established in 1856. Important to note is that while the government appoints and pays for the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in Ministry of Endowment-approved mosques and monitors their sermons, it does not at all contribute to the funding of Christian churches and/or clergy.

Today, even in the limited cases in which presidential decrees are issued to approve the construction of new churches, there is anecdotal evidence indicating that police officers often cite local security concerns in order to halt the construction of local churches. For this reason, many worshippers end up building illegal churches or conducting services in unofficial, privately-owned buildings; informal worshippers continue to be halted by the state and punished for such activity. Also important to note is that only explicitly-recognized religious groups are able to establish houses of worship; the Ministry of Interior is the entity that governs the decision as to whether to approve religious entities or not. ((To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of Interior’s Religious Affairs Department, which determines whether the group would pose a threat or upset national unity or social peace. In making this determination, the department consults with religious figures, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church. As per Law 15 of 1927, the registration is then referred to the President who issues a decree formally recognizing the group. As of 1960, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Bahai’s were explicitly banned by the Egyptian government.))

Ultimately, while Sisi’s decision to meet with the country’s Christian representatives is a symbolically important one, the language of the country’s Constitution and the sentiment on the ground do not inspire much hope for those expecting progressive legislation on church-building. Under the country’s own Constitution, specifically Article 53, Egypt must ensure that all of its citizens are “equal in rights, freedoms, and general duties, without discrimination based on religion;” furthermore, under Article 18 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Egypt maintains a duty to ensure every individual’s right to freedom of religion, which includes the ability to practice both in public and in private, individually and in a community-setting.

The country’s failure to ensure that all Egyptian citizens have the same opportunities and institutional support to establish and renovate houses of worship violates the country’s duty to respect the equal treatment of its citizens. Continuing to have different legal schemes to govern Egypt’s churches and mosques is undeniable proof of the inherent inequity between the two populations and is only indicative of a deeper state-entrenched sectarianism that must be addressed for Egypt to meet its constitutional and international obligations. The path to religious equality is one that requires a series of proactive steps to combat years of entrenched discrimination that include, in addition to reform of the legislative scheme governing houses of worship, addressing the problems caused by the requirement to list religion on national identification cards and the inequity in practices surrounding conversion. First however, it requires recognition, both by the government and the Egyptian people, that the status quo cannot be maintained and that Egypt’s citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, are absolutely and unambiguously equal and should be treated as such.