Egypt’s recent church building law was largely negotiated behind the scenes between the government and the three largest Christian denominations: the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. Despite concerns over insufficient public dialogue and loopholes which may hinder implementation, many Christians celebrate a formal legal process over the ad hoc nature of security intervention and presidential permits.
And among those who hope to gain are the smaller Christian denominations of Egypt. Largely overlooked in the national discussion, they also have a right to freedom of religion and worship.
Christians are generally estimated to be 10 percent of the population, the vast majority belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. But in 2006, the Ministry of the Interior published its most recent major clarification of Christian denominations, recognizing also the Coptic Catholic Church and the National Evangelical Church as “Egyptian” churches. Eighteen others are approved but designated as “foreign,” An additional 17 Protestant denominations are not mentioned specifically in the 2006 statement, but are recognized under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church.
The text of the new church building law makes no direct distinction between the three national churches and the smaller denominations. Articles 3 and 4 simply designate the “legal representative of the denomination” as the one responsible to interact with the governor and other state authorities. Leaders of the non-“Egyptian” denominations state the new law will also facilitate their construction of new churches, but the process requires understanding of how the government relates to each.
Father Rafic Greiche, the official spokesman for Assembly of Patriarchs and Bishops of the Catholic Church in Egypt, said that each of these officially recognized but foreign denominations have the right to approach the governor to request building a new church, as they have independent legal standing with the government. Practically speaking, however, only the Coptic Catholics and Greek Catholics have sufficient numbers and need to do so. Groups such as the Maronites, Syrians, and Armenians already have churches from a previous era when their populations were higher than they are now. But Father Rafic, as a Greek Catholic, is currently preparing papers to request land for his denomination to build a church in a Cairo suburb near the planned new capital city.
The Roman Catholic Church is an interesting case due to its world prominence and missionary orders. Bishop Adel Zaki is Egyptian and recognized before the government as responsible for all Latin clergy. Should a new church be necessary for either his small Egyptian community or expatriate residents, he will be able to address the governor directly. Catholic missionary orders, such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Combonis, however, will have their affairs regulated by a yet-to-be-issued law for monasteries and convents. Should they have need of a church, an authorized Catholic denomination could secure it through the regular channels and then ask the order to conduct mass and pastoral responsibilities. But this would be an internal arrangement among Catholics, and not a matter requiring government approval.
A somewhat similar pattern governs relations between the Protestant denominations. Known primarily as “Evangelicals,” they are grouped under an umbrella organization known alternately as the National Evangelical Church, in Arabic, or in English as the Protestant Churches of Egypt. The Evangelical Church Supreme Council (al-majlis al-milli) elects a president who is authorized to represent each member denomination before the government. The largest representative is the Presbyterian Church, whose Synod of the Nile was established by American missionaries in the mid-19th century. The 16 other denominations include the Brethren, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches, among others.
According to the legal procedures of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, each denomination must seek building approval through the umbrella organization. Each one is responsible to prepare paperwork and cover costs of construction, but the official request to build is submitted to the governor by Reverend Doctor Andrea Zaki, the president of the organization. If approved, a license will be issued in the name of the National Evangelical Church. In essence, this is the same procedure that governed Protestant churches’ pursuit of a presidential permit prior to the new law.
The Anglican Church is a contested case within the Protestant milieu. Listed as an approved foreign denomination by the Ministry of Interior, the Protestant Churches of Egypt include it under their umbrella. This is rejected by the Anglicans, who are currently pursuing legal means to recognize their church as an independent “Egyptian” church on similar standing with the Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholics, and Evangelicals. As concerns the new church building law, Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, the head of the Anglican Church’s Egyptian diocese, plans to interact directly with the governors.
Not included for consideration in the new law are disputed groups such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Neither the government nor the approved denominations recognize them as legitimately Christian, and they therefore have no legal standing to practice their religion openly.
Ultimately it will be up to the presidentially appointed governors to decide each request, and potentially following refusal, the judiciary. The descriptions above can be confusing for a Western readership already familiar with the diversity of Christianity in their own countries. Will a largely Muslim officialdom in Egypt, perhaps decently accustomed to interactions with the majority Coptic Orthodox, be able to navigate the smaller churches? How will they handle multiple denominational requests in the same area, for example?
Answers to these questions will be worked out over time, as the government and church establishment wrangle over legal jargon, perhaps even in court. This is the advantage of having a law, but it also recalls the original concerns of critics: Much is left open to interpretation and the goodwill of the state in enforcement. But in this moment of hope the leaders of Christian denominations are cautiously optimistic, not only to build new churches but also to formally license those constructed illegally. However imperfect the law may be, codification of religious freedom is a step toward the full citizenship Christians desire.