The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO concerned with human rights, discussed in a press conference Wednesday the downsides of the Church Construction Law, issued in August, arguing that the law is regressive for religious freedoms.
During the conference, EIPR researchers presented their report titled “Closed for Security Reasons: for a fair law for the construction of churches”, a cause that EIPR had been campaigning for since August.
The campaign aimed to push the parliament to reconsider construction restrictions in the law by shedding light on the poor situation of churches across Egypt.
The study showed that the EIPR traced at least 74 cases of sectarian assaults on Copts between 2011 and 2016 that mainly related to churches construction.
Amr Abdul Rahman, director of the civil freedoms programme at EIPR, said that initially there was supposed to be a unified law for all places of worship. “The project was revived during the transition rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011 but was rejected by the Islamic Research Centre at Al-Azhar,” he stated.
It was back on the table with the drafting of the Constitution in 2013 after the ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. “Unfortunately, we took a step back because the final outcome [in the current Constitution] was a law limited to the construction of churches [rather than a unified law for all places of worship],” he added.
Abdul Rahman continued: “We accepted this imperfect situation but decided to continue calling for basic international standards of human rights and constitutional articles.”
During the study’s presentation, Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on freedom of religion and belief at EIPR, discussed a few points on the law, but opened by saying that he did not believe that anything more could be done because the law has already been issued.
“We will be monitoring the implementation of the law, particularly the state committee assigned to look into the situation of existing churches within a year, which has yet to be formed,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim tried to demonstrate how the current law is more restrictive than previous times in Egypt. He argued that even the Hamayonic decree—considered one of the oldest discriminating laws against the right of Copts ability to practice their religious rites—allowed Copts to build churches in communities where all residents were religiously aligned.
By comparison, the current law sets a requirement prior to granting a permit for the potential construction of a church. This stipulation is related to the demography and need of the community where people want to build a church—a biased and vaguely defined requirement.
Ibrahim further referred to court verdicts dating back to 1952 that revoked decisions by the Ministry of Interior to close churches and upheld the rights of Copts to practice their rituals, even inside unlicensed places of worship.
“Nowadays, you need a permit before painting a wall inside the church,” said Ibrahim. He further pointed out that a number of churches continue to be closed by security forces despite many having been in operation for years, including those within Coptic communities.
From there, he explained how the hardship of not having a church has had consequences that lead to sectarian strife.
“Residents who travel miles to find another church get assaulted. Others who create places for prayers in their homes or in buildings that are not churches are subject to both legal penalties and sectarian violence,” he stated.
According to Abdul Rahman, the EIPR’s efforts in reaching out to officials and parliamentary members “were completely ignored. Not only so, but the law was devised in secret room conversations between the government and churches representatives, as if this was not a concern of both Muslims and Christians,” he exclaimed.
The law was passed within a few days after a sudden announcement by the cabinet that the heads of churches approved it. However, it was widely criticised by NGOs, freedom advocates, and other Coptic practitioners and citizens.
“It turns out that those who approved this law will be responsible for the continuation of sectarian violence in Egypt, as the law will not be used to serve the people that need it and give them access to places of worship but rather more restrictive practices against building churches will prevail,” according to Abdul Rahman.