The Egyptian government just announced that it has approved 156 new churches and affiliated buildings for use in the country. This is means there are now 783 church buildings where Christians can legally meet.
Despite this news, many believe that the government is paying lip service to the rights of Christians while doing little to actually defend those rights. According to a recent report from NPR,
In the Egyptian province with the biggest percentage of Christians, the government has refused to grant permits for churches. Tens of thousands of people have nowhere to worship but the street.
The law that regulates whether or not church buildings are approved for Christian worship was passed in 2016, and according to the Human Rights Watch, the law, “allows governors to deny church-building permits with no stated way to appeal, requires that churches be built ‘commensurate with’ the number of Christians in the area, and contains security provisions that risk subjecting decisions on whether to allow church construction to the whims of violent mobs.”
Backdrop of Christian Persecution
The need for Christians to have places to worship has been a hot-button issue in Egypt, where the primary religion is Islam and where there have been numerous incidents of Christian persecution. Proponents of the 2016 law maintained that it would help to protect Christians by putting them under the auspices of the government. But opponents said that the fact the law only addressed Christians was in itself discriminatory.
According to one Coptic Christian, “If they wanted to issue a proper law, they would have drafted a unified law for building houses of worship.” This law would govern how both Muslims and Christians worship, instead of singling Christians out.
Other Christians say that the laws regulating the building of mosques in Egypt are more lenient than those regulating the building of churches. It also seems that the law has not been terribly effective at protecting the rights of Christians or at safeguarding them from violence. In December 2016, 25 people died when a Coptic Cathedral in Cairo was bombed, and in April 2017, 45 died in multiple church bombings that occurred in Alexandria and Tanta. Twenty-six people on their way to worship at a monastery died in Minya, Egypt, in May 2017.
More recently, early in January 2019, a police officer died while defusing a bomb ahead of the opening of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the Middle East. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi attended the cathedral’s opening, where he said that Egypt’s Muslims and Christians “are one, and we will remain one. This is a historic and important moment, but we still have to protect the tree of love we planted here together today, because seditions never end.”
Not Exactly ‘One’ in Practice
Nevertheless, Christians, particularly in rural areas, remain disadvantaged and vulnerable because of their faith. NPR reporter Jane Arraf visited a church service in the town of Tayeba. There, she spoke to a woman visiting the church service in Tayeba who is from a town where a church built 13 years ago remains unused because it lacks government approval. The woman said,
Our church is small, but they refuse to let us pray. The children know nothing about our religion. We have sick, elderly people who can’t travel this distance. There isn’t always transportation. And when there is, we don’t always have money to pay for it.
And again, it’s not just that Christians have financial difficulties. In the village of Zafarana, which has a church that has not been approved, a mob surrounded and threatened some Christians who were praying in a house there.
Father Gergis Hakeim, whom Arraf spoke to in the city of Samalut says, “There are laws regarding churches. It’s a long process to submit papers for building a new church. But there are urgent cases. And we already have the churches. So why can’t we pray in them? What is the problem? Do we require official permission to pray?”