October 6, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1273

Egyptian Regime Approves Church Construction Law, Satisfying Coptic Church; Interfaith Conflict Continues

October 6, 2016 | By C. Meital*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1273


In recent months, tensions have been rising between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. Recurring violent incidents between Muslims and Copts in the rural areas of Upper Egypt in the Minya and Bani Suef Governorates[1] have led to increased protests by the Coptic Church,[2] even requiring the involvement of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who in July 2016 met with Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II to try to calm and reassure the Coptic community.[3] In light of these events, the Egyptian government, along with Coptic Church representatives from around the country, joined forces to promote a law regulating the construction and renovation of churches in Egypt; the law received final presidential approval on September 28, 2016.[4]

The new law regulates the construction and renovation of churches and related structures, and sets out a legal definition of the term "church" and other relevant terms. Under it, the Coptic Church's legal counsel would submit a request to build or renovate a church to the local governor, who has four months to respond; if he denies the request he must give his reasons in detail. The law also states that the size of the church and adjacent structures will be set in accordance with population sizes and requirements.[5]

Prior to the law's passage, in early August 2016, it was reported that the Egyptian government and Coptic Church (which consists of three branches: Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic) had reached an agreement on its wording.[6] But while some MPs, particularly Copts, welcomed it, stating that it would contribute to ending the religious conflict, others, among them MP 'Atef Makhlif, argued that some sections of it were vague, such as Section 2 concerning how large churches may be.[7] The section stated: "The size of the church and of the accompanying structure for which the [building] permit is filed must be in accordance with the number and needs of the Christians in the area where it will be established, taking into consideration the population growth rate..."[8]  

The Orthodox Church issued a statement claiming that "unacceptable changes and impractical additions" had been made to the agreed-upon wording, "which could jeopardize national unity in Egypt because of their complexities and flaws, and due to the failure to take into account the national sentiment and civil rights of the Copts in Egypt."[9]

Following these objections to the proposed wording of the law from some Copts and MPs, the government hastened to discuss the disputed sections, fearing an increase in the Muslim-Coptic tension.[10] Additionally, Church representatives met with Egyptian Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Magdy Al-Agaty,[11] and Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Isma'il met with Patriarch Tawadros II.[12]

On August 25, the Church announced that it had reached an agreement with the government regarding the wording of the law,[13] which was approved by the Egyptian parliament five days later, on August 30. The Salafi Al-Nour party remained opposed; its members abstained and left the room after the vote,[14] and Al-Nour MP Mohammad Isma'il Gadallah said that the law would lead to the eradication of Egypt's Islamic identity.[15] After the law's passage, Patriarch Tawardos II thanked state officials, including President Al-Sisi and Prime Minister Isma'il, stressing, "This law aims to correct a mistake that has lasted 160 years."[16]

In contrast to Church representatives' positive reactions to the law, it has sparked outrage from the beginning of its ratification process in the government and parliament, and was also opposed by many public and media figures, including Copts, liberals, and Islamists. Thus, for example, Orthodox Coptic attorney Naguib Gabriel stated that the law did not bring about equality among citizens, and expressed his objections to Section 2, about the size of a church as proportional to the size of the local Christian population. There were no such restrictions, he said, on mosque construction.[17] Kamal Zakher, coordinator of the Secular Copts movement, criticized parliament's fast-tracking of the law, arguing that it divided Muslims and Christians.[18] He added that several Coptic movements as well as public figures, politicians, and civil society organizations had presented an official memo to President Al-Sisi requesting that he not sign the law and instead send it back to parliament.[19] The main argument against the law is that it sets Christians apart from the rest of Egyptian society, and that the issue of church construction should have been included in a broader, more general law regulating the construction of all places of worship.[20]

President Al-Sisi meets with Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II (Al-Ahram, Egypt, July 29, 2016)

Following are excerpts from articles by Egyptian writers, both Copts and Muslims, reflecting the discourse on this issue throughout the process of the law's approval in the government and parliament:

Coptic MPs: Apply The Same Law To Churches And Mosques

Coptic MP: Current Law Does Not Solve The Problem Of Churches

Before the passage of the law, Dr. 'Imad Gad, a Coptic MP and deputy chairman of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, argued that it would not change the harsh reality faced by churches, and that a separate law for churches would divide Christians and Muslims. He suggested that there should be instead a single law for all houses of worship:

"The law in its current form does not solve the problem of the old churches and does not address the problem of building new ones. The government purposely dodged this, and behind the scenes are the security apparatuses - particularly the national security apparatuses - who are ready to hunt down and exploit instances of ambiguous wording in order to deal with the whole issue. This is why the Orthodox Church expressed the hope that the law would be implemented honestly and in accordance with the assurances that it provided.

"The law allows the governor of the district in question to decide on a request [to construct or renovate a church] within four months, but does not set out what course of action should be pursued if the request is denied - neither sanctions on governors who repeatedly reject requests, nor a channel for filing a complaint about injustice or a governor's rejection... Therefore, there is nothing new here... With regard to building new churches, the governor may deny the request, and the party submitting the request must turn to the courts and go through the process of filing a complaint, which can take years...

"As for the message that this law conveys: Passing a law concerning the construction and renovation of churches that is separate from a law concerning the construction and renovation of mosques will only deepen the religious discrimination among Egypt's [citizens], and splinter the unity between a Muslim Egyptian and a Christian Egyptian, and between a mosque and a church, so that each have their own space and their own law. Therefore, all Egyptians must join forces to oppose this law and demand a single law for houses of worship...

"We must pass a law with only two sections that will fundamentally solve this problem and end the tension that has existed in our hearts for decades and the whole debate on this issue by setting uniform, objective standards for [both] mosques and churches. The 'Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination' group has already drawn up both sections of this law. Section 1 states: 'All unauthorized Christian houses of worship that host religious worship at the time of the passage of this law will become licensed, so that the sections of this [new] law [only] apply to Christian houses of worship that are to be constructed, reinforced, renovated, expanded, or have stories added.' Section 2 states: 'All regulations regarding the construction, maintenance, renovation, and expansion... of houses of worship serving Egypt's Muslim citizens, or regarding adjacent structures that serve them, will apply [also] to the houses of worship of Egypt's Christian citizens.' Thus this pointless debate surrounding church building will end."[21]

Coptic Intellectual: There Must Be Social Consensus About Church Construction Law

Also prior to the law's passage, Gamal As'ad, a Coptic intellectual and former MP, attacked both the Salafi Al-Nour party and what he referred to as "Coptic activists." About the former, he argued that the party's opposition to the law constituted explicit support for revoking Copts' rights and citizenships and for marginalizing them; regarding the latter, he said that their actions are enraging Muslims and fueling the Muslim-Copt schism. He wrote:

"Every law is aimed at regulating the internal ties among sectors of the public and between the public and the regime. There must be a social consensus about a law's importance in order to create an agreement that will allow it to be implemented... [In the Copts' case,] there are obstacles that prevent us from thinking that the problem of the churches was solved when this law was passed, because the Salafi stream, represented by the Al-Nour Party, champions beliefs and opinions that are in line with its own partisan and political interests, and exploits the religious sphere for political purposes... The [Al-Nour party's] rejection of the churches law is not a normal political and parliamentary expression, but an explicit statement [in support of] revoking the rights and citizenship of the other, and marginalizing him, while flouting the constitution...

"On the other hand, there are the so-called 'Coptic activists' who are the other side of the same coin, even if passively, because they act just like [Al-Nour] and bring about the same results. They and others hijack this issue in order to make their presence known, and they delude themselves that they are playing a role, when they are not sufficiently knowledgeable [to play it]. The strange thing is that these activists presume to demand a civil state, but at the same time their methods perpetuate a religious state. They speak on behalf of their sect and make sectarian demands on a sectarian basis, and this angers the Muslim majority, as if [their demands] were aimed at preventing the construction of mosques, not obtaining a law for churches. They do this instead of acting to create a [sympathetic] political environment that includes and unites everyone, because if everyone is not satisfied, and if everyone is not included, it will not help solve this or other problems. Therefore, before this law [is passed], it is more important to eliminate the atmosphere that [the Coptic activists] are exploiting. This is an obligation for everyone, on all levels - starting with Al-Azhar and the [Coptic] Church."[22]

Muslim Egyptian Writers: The Church Construction Law Undermines Christian-Muslim Equality

Egyptian Writer: Building Houses Of Worship Is Not Just A Christian Right - The Law Must Apply To Everyone

Muslim Al-Ahram columnist Dr. Osama Al-Ghazali Harb argued that the law, if passed, I don't want to say "prior to the passage of the law" yet again  would express the failure of the civil state and the citizenship law, and called on parliament to reject it. He said that there was need for a more general law regulating the construction of houses of worship, and that such a bill should be discussed by all Christian and Muslim citizens - not by Christians and the government. He wrote:

"The current debate in parliament regarding the church construction law is a failure of the civil state in Egypt and the citizenship law, and history will hold accountable anyone who took part in it, whether Christian or Muslim, [for the following reasons:]

"- The claim that this law implements Section 235 of the constitution - which states that 'in its first legislative term following the effective date of this Constitution, the House of Representatives shall issue a law to regulate constructing and renovating churches, in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians' - does not rule out the possibility that this will be carried out under a more general law regarding the construction of [all] houses of worship. Section 64 of the constitution supports my claim, as it states that freedom of religious worship and the freedom to establish houses of worship are anchored in the law, that is, it does not restrict the legal arrangement in this matter to churches only.

"- The sides in this debate are not only the government and the Church, but are, first and foremost the Christian and Muslim citizens; their religious institutions are to join the debate later on. The argument that the Church represents the Copts is purely sectarian; this debate should be conducted by all citizens, Copts and Muslims, as citizens with equal rights and obligations, and without differentiation or discrimination.

"- It would be unfortunate and shameful to forgo [the passing of] a single law for the construction of houses of worship for both Muslims and Christians, and to refer only to the construction of churches...

"I call on parliament to oppose the church construction bill and to go back to the concept of a single law for houses of worship. If the Egyptian parliament indeed does this, then it will go down in history... Finally, I say to President Al-Sisi that his visit to St. Mark's [Coptic] Cathedral [in Alexandria] to extent holiday greetings to the Copts was a wise move indicating his interest in them, and the Copts accepted this with love, esteem, and gratitude, as he deserved. However, there is [still] a great need for [improving] the full rights of Cops in Egypt after the January 25 and June 30 revolutions."[23]

Muslim Writer: The Law Constitutes A Church Crime Against Struggling Christians, And It Revokes Their Equality In The Homeland

Muslim Al-Masri Al-Yawm writer Hamdi Razaq criticized the Egyptian churches, claiming that they agreed to the law in return for approval for installing bells in church towers and placing crosses atop them, and accused them of actualizing the extremist Muslim plan to marginalize Christians and revoke their citizenship. He wrote:

"The 15th draft of the church construction bill explicitly refers to church towers with bells and crosses. Is the problem really bells and crosses?...

"The three churches [Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelist] have willingly signed on to something that the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, and their supporters were unable to accomplish. The latter's historic plan was to revoke the Christians' citizenship and single them out in their homeland by means of a bell and a cross. [It is as if they said:] 'Here is the bell and the cross that make you Christians in the homeland, instead of citizens. You are dhimmi, [non-Muslims protected by] others.

"The evil of the Salafi [Egyptian] state is terrible. It hanged Christians from bells and crosses as it passed its shameful law. The Christians shouted, Where is the bell? Where is the cross? The bell and the cross distracted them from a law revoking their citizenship and expelling them from the public, as if the Christians' [entire] cause depends on a cross...

"This law is a perfectly grounded crime against the homeland, and its passage, with the consent of the three churches, is a crime against the Christians by the churches. All those who worked to pass this law, [it is as if] they plunged a knife deep into the heart of the state... [by] accepting this law as approved, as if it was preordained.

"The Egyptians' struggle for equality in a single homeland has become an illusion. The chances of [equal] citizenship have been reduced to a cross on a bell tower... The Egyptian homeland will not accept any distinction between Muslim and Christian, church and mosque, bell tower and minaret, bell and [Muslim] call to prayer, crescent and cross. Throughout Egypt's history, its crescent has embraced its cross, and its cross has been at the heart of the crescent - because that is how Egypt was designed.

"If the government has committed a crime by proposing this law, then the Church's crime is even worse. Both have transgressed against the civil state, against every Egyptian - and against the Muslims even before the Christians. Lately, we Muslims and Christians have become brothers - [but] unfortunately it is as a result of [the government's] harmful partnership with the Salafis.

"To those of you who raise a ruckus about the cross - where is the motto of 'citizens, not subjects'? Who decided on this unfair differentiation between a law for mosques and a law for churches?... Tolerance has been lost deep in our hearts, and our homeland has become a place... where Christians [need to] pray in their homeland under [the protection of a special] law... We are not at the mercy of the Salafis. Do not discriminate among us on the basis of religion. This law is religious discrimination of the first degree...

"A law for a bell and a cross... brings us back to the ancient period of dhimmi [that is, when Jews and Christians lived under Muslim rule]. Is this law appropriate for Egypt? We have nothing to do with this law, and the bell hangs around the necks of all of us - both rulers and ruled."[24]


* C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.




[1] For more on violent anti-Copt incidents, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1265, Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad, August 14, 2016.

[2] For example, Tawadros II said that there have been 37 assaults on Copts in the past three years, and that the church, which has thus far managed to contain Coptic rage in and out of Egypt, cannot continue to do so for much longer. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 25, 2016. Criticism was also voiced by Copts in exile in the U.S., among them a Bishop known as Mark Aziz, who claimed that Al-Sisi deceived them regarding addressing this matter. Egyptian Copts, who are among Al-Sisi's supporters, dismissed this criticism from abroad. Al-Misryyoun (Egypt), July 21, 2016; Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 23, 2016.

[3] Al-Sisi and Tawadros II met on July 28, 2016 and discuss interfaith tensions in Egypt and the importance of national unity. Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 29, 2016.

[4] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), September 28, 2016.

[5] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 30, 2016.

[6] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 2, 2016.

[7] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 4, 2016.

[8] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 30, 2016.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 19, 2016.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 19, 2016.

[11] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 8, 2016; Al-Watan (Egypt), August 20, 2016.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 23, 2016.

[13] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 25, 2016. The law was published in full in Al-Masri Al-Yawm on August 27.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 31, 2016; Al-Watan (Egypt), August 30, 2016.

[15] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 30, 2016.

[16] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 31, 2016.

[17], August 31, 2016. Egypt has no laws regarding mosque construction, and they are built in accordance with conditions set out in 2001 by then minister of religious endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk and passed by the government. According to those conditions, a mosque can only be built when the existing mosques in a certain area are insufficient to serve the local worshippers; a new mosque cannot be built within 50 meters of an existing mosque or on stolen or disputed land; and no mosque may be smaller than 175 square meters. The Ministry of Religious Endowments is in charge of approving new mosques. 'Abd Al-Ghani Hindi, the coordinator of the Popular Movement for an Independent Al-Azhar,  said that the most recent law regulating mosques was passed in 1949 under President Nasser, but only dealt with the administration of large mosques, and that no laws regulate the construction and administration mosques in general. He stressed that Zakzouk's conditions are regulations, not law, and that that they are currently not implemented, because the Ministry of Religious Endowments is never contacted before construction on a new mosque begins. Al-Watan (Egypt), July 20, 2016.

[18] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 1, 2016.

[19] Al-Watan (Egypt), September 6, 2016.

[20] Writer 'Adel Naaman claimed that the law was a Salafi law. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 31, 2016. Dr. Mustafa Al-Fiqi wrote that he would have preferred the law to be a "Construction of Places of Worship Law" instead. However, he said that the law was a mark of pride for the government, and that he hoped it would end sectarian hostilities in the country. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 30, 2016.

[21] Al-Watan (Egypt), August 27, 2016.

[22] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), September 5, 2016.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 31, 2016.

[24] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 28, 2016.

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