Just three months after the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, it appears Egyptian authorities are taking a big step toward protecting the freedom of worship for the nation’s Christian community by lifting major restrictions on the construction of new churches.
Ahram Online reports that the committee working on amending the suspended 2012 constitution on Sunday adopted a transitional article that will nullify current restrictions on the construction of new churches. The 50-member committee adopted another article calling for “absolute freedom of belief” for all Egyptians.
To now, Christians -- who comprise an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population -- have been required to obtain special presidential permits to construct or renovate churches. There is no parallel law regulating the construction of mosques.
International Christian Concern writes of the proposed amendment, “This development would mark a major change on Egypt’s historical stance towards the construction of new churches and religious freedom. Please pray that this measure is written into law.”
Senior officials with Al-Azhar, the nation’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, are demanding that freedom of religion be restricted to the three monotheistic faiths.
The minority Christian community has been subject to repeated attacks since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after the so-called Arab Spring demonstrations. Attacks have included the harassment and killing of community members and the torching of churches. Just last week, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on worshipers celebrating a wedding at a Coptic Christian church in Cairo, killing one woman and wounding ten. After Morsi’s ejection from power, reprisal attacks increased, targeting not only churches but Christian business and homes.
According to Ahram Online, it's not only Christians who face persecution. Devotees of Shi’a Islam and the Baha’i faith “are not allowed to practice their beliefs in public and have suffered sectarian attacks by Sunni extremists over the years.”
The constitution drafted last year by Islamist parties, which is currently being amended, did not include protections for Christians and non-Sunni Muslims.
In June, just weeks before the massive demonstrations which resulted in the unseating of the Islamist president, Egyptian authorities allowed construction of a new church in Nubaria in the north of the country, a move that was viewed by the Christian community as a “political ploy” and an attempt to “woo the Copts” before the protests.
“The problem is not about getting one church licensed; it's about the dozens of others that have not been licensed. Copts have to go around the law all the time to build unlicensed churches because of the near impossibility of obtaining licenses to build a new church,” Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Egypt's Watani newspaper, told World Watch Monitor.
While mosques require only zoning permits, church construction requires “long, arduous rounds of papers and permits, which take years on end.” Some are never approved at all.
“It has been customary for the authorities to side-line church applications and to procrastinate for years [rather than] issue permits," Sidhom said in June.
"Even fixing a pipeline or mending a church wall requires a permit from the local governor. These permits can take years to attain," Coptic Christian attorney Nagib Gibra'il told The Media Line in a 2010 article highlighting the challenge facing Christians. "Muslims, on the other hand, get to build their mosques normally without restriction."
Naguib Gabrielil who heads the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization told the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) that 149 church permits are still pending.