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(AINA) -- Unusually bad winter weather in Upper Egypt all last week focused attention once again on the controversial restrictions on church building. The rainy weather caused roofs of dilapidated churches -- which have been waiting for years to receive construction permits -- to collapse.
Much of the on-going sectarian strife in Egypt is related to the ability of Christians to build churches. Most human rights organizations in Egypt have called on the Egyptian government for the last 15 years to promptly adopt "a unified law governing construction of the houses of worship." believing that this law would eliminate more than 90% of the sectarian tension.
Presently church building in Egypt is still partly governed by the Hamayouni Decree of 1856, and the 1934 el-EzabI Decree that stipulated 10 conditions that must be met prior to issuance of a presidential decree permitting the construction of a church. The conditions include the requirement that the distance between a church and a mosque be not less than 100 meters, the approval of the neighboring Muslim community, the number of Christians in the area and whether or not the proposed church is near the Nile, public utilities or railways. Copts view these regulations as confirmation of their Dhimmi or second-class citizenship status.
After the November 2010 parliamentary elections, Copts kept getting mixed messages about the long awaited "law on places of worship," which was promised to be introduced to Parliament this session. On the opening session of the new parliament, however, President Mubarak did not introduce the church building law.
A heated debate took place in parliament on January 5 between Shura member Dr. Mofeed Shihab, Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, and Dr. Refaat Al-Saeed, chairman of Al-Tagamo'h Party, who talked of the necessity of adopting the places of worship law. Al-Saeed was rebuffed by Mr Shihab, who said what he is asking for will "Give rise to discord and sectarian strife, because the number of churches built in the era of President Mubarak has exceeded what has been built in all previous periods."
Four days later the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) said it was considering a unified law on places of worship for Muslims and Christians. However, the final draft of the bill has yet to take shape.
On January 17, Dr. Mostafa El Fekki, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Shura Council, said that the law on places of worship will not be adopted due to procedural considerations, pointing out that this law opens the door to sedition in the community, and may encourage a Muslim to build a mosque on an area of 100 acres just like some of the monasteries for Christians do. He believes that this situation could only be solved by a presidential decree or by new legislation repealing the old and starting anew.
"They cannot keep giving us excuses as if we are mentally retarded," said Coptic activist Mark Ebeid. "Gone are the days when we could be pacified with hollow promises, honeyed rhetoric, and citizenship rights which are never implemented."
In 2005 President Mubarak delegated authority to the country's 26 governors to grant permits to expand or rebuild existing churches. But this has not alleviated the problem.
Last week thousands of Copts staged peaceful rallies to protest local governors' decisions to halt their church permits, or to order demolition of parts of their new churches, under pretexts of deviations in the the blueprints of the church drawings. "It all boils down in the end to the emergence of a dome in the construction," says activist Wagih Yacoub.
In the Governorate of Minya, more than 5000 Copts in Maghagha staged a sit-in because the tent in which they have been using as a church since March last year collapsed due to the profuse rain on January 17. They called on the Governor of Minya to issue the rebuilding permit for the Diocese of Maghagha Church, which was demolished to be replaced by a new one. However, since March 2010, the situation has come to a standstill. Because after demolishing the buildings, the Governor insisted that for a new diocese to be built the Bishop has also to demolish his 45 square meter home and "should find somewhere else to sleep" (AINA 8-26-2010).
During the Feast of Epiphany on January 19, Maghagha Copts demonstrated and held banners inside the soggy tent, saying that "come rain, come heat, nothing will stop us from praying."
During the feast, Anba Agathon, Bishop of Maghagha called on the government to abolish the Hamayouni Decree. "We are in the 21st Century , and the laws of Ottomans when they were occupying Egypt were all revoked by the state except for the Hamayouni Decree. As citizens we demand the revocation of the Ottoman law concerning our places of worship. We cannot accept that it should remain any longer."
Also in the Minya Province the roof of el-Amodein Evangelical church in Samalut collapsed on January 19 because of heavy rain. Pastor Sameh Wasfi told Copts United that some 1500 youth have staged a sit-in in the church, angry as the church had applied for a renewal permit five years ago without any progress. He said that a number of state security officers promised to complete the permit procedures for demolition and rebuilding of the church as soon as possible. The church also serves as a village school.
In the Governorate of Beni Suef thousands of Copts protested ten days ago inside the newly-built church in Ezbet Gaffer, Al-Fashn, after a decision by the city's administration office to demolish the church's dome, citing that its builders did not adhere to the licensing conditions, as the Presidential Decree came with no dome. The church was built years ago and was developing cracks in its walls, but Al-Fashn Diocese asked for a permit for demolishing the old building and replacing it with a new one, which would serve three villages. The Governor intervened to pacify the Copts and sent the drawing to Cairo to see the possibility of amendments.
Only two months ago a similar situation took place at the new Coptic Church of St. Mary and St. Michael's, in Talbiya, Giza, which ended with deadly consequences for Copts and a huge human rights scandal for the government. State security forces opened fire with live ammunition and used tear gas on women, children and youth who were present at the church, in order to halt construction of the church and demolish the building. Upon seeing a dome being erected, the governor of Giza and the local authorities sent at dawn on November 24 nearly 5,000 security forces, which surrounded the church, shot at the congregation with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas The clashes between security and the Copts resulted in the death of three Coptic men from bullet wounds and a four year old child from tear gas being thrown inside the chapel. More than 79 Copts were wounded, some severely, and 157 people were detained, including women and children, and were all charged with premeditated murder of a police officer, assaulting security officers, rioting, theft and destruction of public property (AINA 11-30-2010).
By Mary Abdelmassih