Egypt govt caves in to Church demands on places of worship law

The Egyptian government agreed to four reservations made by the Orthodox Church regarding a “unified” law on places of worship and rejected three others. It announced it would continue discussions regarding two reservations, said Ramses al-Naggar, a Coptic Church legal advisor, on Wednesday.

In June, the military-backed government proposed a law giving governors the power to grant or deny permits to build, modify or renovate places of worship. The bill also put limits on the number of churches allowed in a given area as well as on the size of churches, stating that they must be at least 1000 square meters in area. However, the draft was rejected by Coptic activists as too restrictive.

For decades, Egyptian Copts have been calling for a law to unify the standards and conditions of construction for both Muslim and non-Muslim places of worship. The law would replace the “Hamayouni Decree," a clause in Egyptian law dating from the time of Ottoman rule which regulates church construction and maintenance. The decree stipulates the need to obtain prior approval from the chief executive – the president in modern times – to build a new church or expand or restore an existing one.

In a joint statement issued in June, the Egyptian Coptic, Anglican and Catholic Churches rejected the draft law on places of worship.

They requested amendments to certain articles, especially those stipulating that places of worship be 1000 square meters in size, which they say is hard to implement. They also rejected the condition that there must be at least 1 km between two separate places of worship.

They rejected the stipulation that local councils be given authority to grant permits, and requested that conditions for licenses be standardized.

In a press statement on Wednesday, Naggar said the government agreed to amend the minimum area required for houses of worship from 200 square meters to 1 square km.

He went on to say that the government agreed to remove the article that prevents the building of a place of worship within another place of worship of the same religion and denomination.

He said the government also agreed that permits for building places of worship would be the responsibility of local municipalities and that in the case of a permit being rejected, the governor would intervene. This is in addition to the government's approval of a request made by the Church that would require approval of each denomination’s head prior to the building of any house of worship.

Naggar added that the government is still discussing the Church's proposal to only fine rather than arrest those violating permit conditions, along with the Church’s request for a maximum fine of LE50,000 and a minimum fine of LE5,000. According to the National Commission for Justice Member Amir Ramsey, Pope Shenouda said he would not accept the draft law unless the government approved the two reservations.

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