December 21, 1999 Special Dispatch No. 65

Anti-Christian Legislation in Egypt

December 21, 1999
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 65

In an open letter to the Egyptian Minister of Interior, the editor of the Egyptian Christian Coptic newspaper, Watani (My Homeland)[1] calls for the abolition of the Egyptian laws that prevent the construction of new churches. In making his argument, the editor refers to recent statements made by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Nasr Farid Wasil, on the planned mosque in Nazareth that indirectly aim to justify the building of a mosque opposite the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth on land that was seized by force by the Islamic Movement in Israel. The Mufti stated that it is acceptable for Muslims to pray in mosques adjacent to places of worship of other monotheistic religions, stressing that Islam instructs respect for believers of monotheistic religions as well as their places of worship.

If this is the case, Watani editor Yousef Saydham writes, December 5, 1999, that Islam does not forbid the proximity of places of worship of monotheistic religions then why have we in Egypt been suffering for 65 years from hateful legislation that in an abusive way restricts the construction of new churches, based on the distance between the location of the planned church and the neighboring mosques?

The law, enacted in February 1934 and prevailing today, imposes preconditions, based on the following ten questions, to licensing the construction of a new church:

  • 1. "Is the land on which the planned church is to be built empty or cultivated? Is the land owned by the applicant? Has the ownership of the land been sufficiently authenticated and are the documents enclosed?
  • 2. How far is the location of the planned church from the mosques and tombs in the sub-district?
  • 3. If the location is in an uncultivated piece of land, is it in a Muslim or a Christian area?
  • 4. If the location is in a Muslim area, is there any objection to the construction?
  • 5. Does the given religious community have another church in the village besides the one they are requesting?
  • 6. If there are no churches in that village, how far is the distance between that village and the closest church of that religious community in a neighboring village?
  • 7. What is the number of people in that religious community living in the village?
  • 8. If the requested location for the church is close to the Nile bridges, [irrigation] canals, and the irrigation general services, the permission of the irrigation authority is needed. The same holds if the site is close to the railway lines or stations.
  • 9. An official protocol must be established to include the results of the different inquiries as well as detailing all the places that neighbor the location of the planned church which answer to the register of public places and the distance between the location of the planned church and each and every such [public] place. All of this material should be sent to the Ministry of Interior.
  • 10.Along with the application, the applicant must submit a 1:1000 scale design signed by the religious leader of the given religious community, the engineer, and the office in charge of these inquiries. This office should verify the inquiry's veracity and this should be marked on the inquiry papers."

"What is the purpose of measuring distances between the location of a church and neighboring mosques or tombs?" asks the editor fo Watani, "What is a safe distance [between any given mosque and a planned church]? I am sorry to say that many church applications for a license are withheld due to reports on the existence of a mosque nearby. Moreover, the bitter reality is that lands are bought near a location where an application had been submitted for a church and the mere beginning of construction of a mosque is enough to prevent the building of the church."

"What are the places of Christians and what are the places of Muslims in Egypt? Is there a set number of churches that cannot be exceeded? What is the purpose of checking if there is a church in the neighboring village? Why should the law force people to go pray in another village every week? What damage can be done to the Nile's bridges, irrigation canals, railway lines, and other public places by a neighboring church?"

"All of this is humiliation and derogation and discrimination between Christian and non-Christian Egyptians. For 65 years now these ten hateful preconditions have not applied to all places of worship, but only to the churches. Hasn't the time come to abolish these laws, or does the Grand Mufti's fatwa apply only to the case of the mosque in Nazareth?"

[1] Watani (Egypt), December 5, 1999

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