6-17-2011By AnnaMaria Shaker
Programs and Policy
In the wake of the May attack on Christian churches in Imbaba, Egypt’s National Justice Committee drafted a “unified” law on places of worship that has made both Muslim and Christian leaders unhappy, rejecting the draft as restrictive and discriminatory to their respective religions. If the law is passed without serious revisions, the Committee’s attempt to quell Egypt’s escalating sectarian violence may further intensify interreligious tension.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf created the National Justice Committee, which is comprised of Muslims and Christians, in response to the May church attacks in Imbaba. The Committee’s main purpose is to respond to sectarian strife by investigating the most recent incidents, suggesting solutions, and drafting two specific laws. Along with the upcoming anti-discrimination law, the “unified” law on places of worship aims to curb sectarian tension.
For Muslims (as well as Christians), a major article of contention in the “unified” law stipulates a limit of one place of worship per square kilometer, thus serving only one religious group in densely populated and religiously diverse areas. The law renders all places of worship attached to residential buildings illegal, further decreasing the number of worship spaces available.
According to Mamdouh Ismail, an Egyptian lawyer and Muslim Brotherhood member, these unprecedented restrictions on mosque construction will force Muslims to pray on the streets. Lawyers have filed official complaints against the draft arguing, “Where can millions of Muslims pray? Are we going to pray in the streets or will this also be banned? And why should Muslims pray in the streets while Copts [Orthodox Christians] pray in their churches?” Ismail maintains, “The draft law clearly discriminates against Muslims and limits their freedom to build mosques, which may lead to an unprecedented wave of anger.”
Christian leaders from the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches have been the most outspoken opponents to this draft law. Naguib Gobrael, head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization, argues that this law brings Christians “back to square one.” Christian leaders’ main concerns include the new application process, which they fear will not be impartial, and the government’s interference in church budgets, which they see as unwarranted.
Currently in Egypt, building, demolishing, or renovating a place of worship entails a convoluted, prolonged application process that has proved to be discriminatory against Christians in practice. The new draft law necessitates a permit for any sort of construction relating to any place of worship. The Ministry of Local Development issues the permit; then, the Ministry of Religious Endowment or the representative of the religious group provides written consent. Finally, the governor approves or rejects the permit within three months (otherwise approving the permit by default). The religious community cannot appeal the governor’s rejection of a permit through the administrative courts.
Serba Moun, the priest of the Imbaba Church where the most recent sectarian attacks occurred in May, argues that this new law fails to remove existing barriers on building churches. Essentially, this new process would allow the governor to make decisions on the basis of personal whims and prejudices, unbounded by any legal oversight. Safwat Bayad, head of Egypt’s Anglican community, doubts that the authorities would apply the new permit procedure equally with respect to mosques and churches. Christians would be left with no legal redress if they do not.
Coptic Orthodox Church leaders object to the new stipulation that subjects all places of worship under the Central Auditing Agency’s supervision. Orthodox churches do not receive government funding and survive primarily on parishioners’ donations and tithing. Therefore, Orthodox Church officials argue that no government entity can rightfully oversee or interfere with church finances. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church already employs an extensive financial monitoring system without the government’s aid. If passed, this article will grant the government unwarranted control of church budgets, thus reducing their independence and ability to provide for the needs of parishioners.
Debates sparked by the National Justice Committee’s new “unified” draft law on places of worship foreshadow the increased sectarian polarization that could arise if the law is passed without critical revisions. Both Muslims and Christians contend that the law discriminates against their respective religions and favors the opposite religion. Muslims and Christians agree that, if passed, this so-called “unified” law will further exacerbate interreligious relationships in Egypt, thus threatening an increase of sectarian strife.