After 150 years, Egypt passes a new Church Construction Law



The “Hanging Church” in Cairo. Photo by Berthold Werner

By Bård Kårtveit, Post.Doc at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).

On August 30, the Egyptian House of Representatives passed a law that sets new rules for the construction and restoration of churches in Egypt. In a country of 90 million people, where Christians make up 6-10% of the population, the building of churches has been one of the most sensitive issues in Christian – Muslim relations. To Egyptian Copts – who make up 95 % of Egypt’s Christians – the need for a law that allows for the building of new churches has become increasingly urgent. For decades, they have called for the building of more churches, and the repair of old ones to cater for their steadily growing numbers. These pleas have been rejected by religious hardliners who oppose anything that might be seen as undermining Egypt’s “Islamic character.” The new law was not passed without controversy. Members of the Salafi Nour party boycotted the vote and warned that the new law gave too much freedom to the Christians, and would provoke a ‘backlash in the streets’. However, among Egyptian Copts who have hoped for an easier path towards the building of new churches, the new law is a huge disappointment and a reminder of their own lack of political clout in a country brimming with sectarian tensions.

An Ottoman legacy

Restrictions on church construction have a long history in Egypt. In 1856 the Ottoman Caliphate issued the Hegemonic Decree (Al- Khat Al-Hamayouni), which gave the ruler, at the time a sultan, the legal authority to decree the construction of any house of worship for non-Muslim subjects. After the Revolution of 1952, this authority rested with the Egyptian President. In 1934, Egyptian authorities issued another decree listing ten conditions that had to be met before the construction of a church could be permitted. Among other things, new church building would have to be approved by local Muslims, be no less than 340 meters from the nearest mosque, and nowhere near schools, village canals, railways, government offices, government facilities, or between residential areas. When rigidly followed, these conditions have made it almost impossible to obtain official permit for the building of new churches, or even the restoration of old ones[i]. Nonetheless, this decree has remained in place until this year. Throughout Hosni Mubarak’s three decade rule as President, the issuing or withholding of church permits served as a powerful means of securing the subservience of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In 1998, the authority to permit restoration of old churches was relegated to provincial governors, and in 1999 to local councils.[ii] Still, when it came to the construction of new churches, the ten conditions set out in 1934 still applied, in most cases making it meaningless to apply for church permits. Over the past 60 years, an average of two building permits for the entire country has been issued each year, according to Coptic Solidarity.

Build first, ask later, or keep quiet

Under these circumstances, Egyptian Copts have had to build churches without official permits, or not at all. In some cases, unlicensed churches have been demolished, usually by local mobs. In areas where Christian – Muslim relations have been relatively peaceful, illegal churches have been left in peace, and in some cases been granted legal status years and sometimes decades after being built. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria is a case in point. According to local Copts, this church was built in several stages so as not to provoke the ire of local Muslims, or of Egyptian authorities. In 1971, they first built a small prayer room on the foundations on an old church. Later on, they built a bigger church on top of the prayer room, under the cover of repairing an old church rather than building a new one. Then they bought the land right next to the church and built a large compound to make room for a nursery for Coptic children, an elderly home, a center for after-school assistance for school students, a Christian bookshop, and a hospital. In the early 1980s, their church was finally granted legal status by Presidential decree, and today, the Church of St Peter and St. Paul is the second largest church and Coptic community center in the city of Alexandria.[iii]

Growing sectarian tensions

These days however, the strategy of building a church and hoping to be left alone or obtain retroactive licensing is not a viable strategy. Since the 1980s, sectarian relations have further deteriorated in many parts of Egypt, with violent attacks against Coptic homes and places of worship growing more frequent and more severe. The New Years Eve 2010 bombing of that same church, claiming the lives of 23 Coptic worshipers – served as a brutal illustration of growing sectarian tensions in Egypt.

In the last few years, there have been several incidents, especially in rural parts of Egypt where mere rumors of unlicensed church construction or the use of private homes as churches have ignited violent attack against Coptic houses and places of worship. Some of these attacks result in loss of Coptic lives, yet the perpetrators are almost never punished. Under these circumstances, it is no longer possible to build new churches, or even restore old ones without official permits at hand.

The new Law

After the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as Egypt’s new President in 2014, Egyptian Copts have hoped for a new law that would make it easier to obtain church permits. In this regard, the law that was passed on Tuesday is a bitter disappointment. Under the new law, church permits must be obtained from the provisional governor, often a retired military or police officer with little regard for Coptic concerns. The law states that the size of the church must be “appropriate” to the number of Christians in the area. Further on, it states that governors should take into account “the preservation of security and public order” in their provinces, when considering applications for new church permits.

According to critics of the law, governors in the bigger cities in the north may be open to grant new church permits. By contrast, local governors in rural areas and in Upper Egypt will be vulnerable to pressure from Muslim hardliners to oppose the construction of churches. At the governors discretion, church permits can be withheld both with reference to ‘security and public order, and with reference to varying estimates for the number of Christians in particular neighborhoods. Since official figures on Egypt’s Christian population are patchy and heavily disputed, individual governors can deny church permits based on any estimate of their own convenience.

Among its critics, the law has fuelled a sense of betrayal by President al-Sisi and anger at the Coptic Church and its leader Pope Tawadros II. The law has been worked out in direct negotiation between the Coptic Church and the government, behind closed doors. Strong disagreements between church and state representatives were reported during these negotiations, and in a statement on August 18, the Church denounced the bill and called it ‘dangerous to national unity.’ However, after meetings between the Coptic Pope and the Prime Minister’s office a few days later, the Coptic Church issued a statement in support of the bill.

A hard blow for the Coptic Church

The long-awaited church law has been an important issue for the Coptic Church. After his enthronement in 2012, Pope Tawadros II woved to keep the church out of politics, marking a break with the position of his predecessor, Pope Shenouda III. However, after the ouster of former President Morsi in July 2013, Pope Tawadros II has emerged as a staunch supporter of Egypt’s new strongman, President al-Sisi.[iv] The Coptic Church was widely expected to be rewarded for this, and to have a strong say in the making of a new church law. Instead, the final version of the law reflects a reality in which the building of churches is openly viewed as a source of sectarian disruption, and a potential threat to security and public order in itself.  Most importantly, it reflects a political reality in which the Egyptian government seeks to appease rather than contain religious hardliners, even if this means brushing aside long-held and deep-seated concerns within Egypt’s Christian communities. Following this defeat, the Pope’s political positioning is likely to come under greater scrutiny within the Coptic community. Since his rise to power, Egyptian Copts have also been among President al-Sisi’s most loyal supporters. It remains to be seen if this will be affected by the new law.

[i] Tadros, Mariz.(2013) Copts at the Crossroads: The Challenges of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt, American University in Cairo Press, pp. 53-55.

[ii] Ibid, p 52.

[iii] Interview with long-term volunteer and social organiser at St. Peter and St Pauls Church, Alexandria, May 16th,  2014.

[iv] Saba Mahmoud (2015) Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report
By Saba Mahmood, Princeton University Press, pp. 83-86.