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Compass (12/13/05) – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak eased long-controversial restrictions on church repair last week in a decree that received mixed reactions from Egypt’s large Coptic Christian community. The old law, requiring the president’s personal approval of simple repairs like fixing a church toilet, was invoked as recently as September. The law has also been blamed for delays of more than a decade in issuing church repair and building permits.

First announced in Egyptian media on Thursday (December 8), Presidential Decree No. 291 allows churches to do basic repairs without waiting for government approval. The new measure reforms the Hamayouni Decree, an Ottoman law instituted in 1856.

Governors must now process requests for major renovation of existing churches within 30 days, a measure that requires unprecedented accountability. A governor can only reject an application by producing detailed reasons for the decision.

Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III promptly sent his thanks to the Egyptian president, Agence France-Presse reported.

“This decree will solve almost 80 percent of our problems: rebuilding old churches,” Safwat El-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt , told Compass. “But we have to be very frank, it doesn’t solve all our problems.”

Many Copts remain skeptical of the decree’s vague wording, as well as its failure to resolve fundamental inequality between the construction of mosques and churches in Egypt .

Set up to legislate non-Muslim places of worship, the Hamayouni law and its 1934 corollary, the Al-Azabi decree, have long been viewed by Egypt’s Coptic Christians as a practical proof of their status as second-class citizens.

During the last year, Egypt ’s community of at least 7 million Christians received only 12 presidential decrees approving “church-related construction,” the U.S. Department of State said in its International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR) for 2005.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of Coptic newspaper Watani, took issue with the new decree’s vague wording. Quoted in full in the Al-Ahram daily newspaper, the decree states that the governor will decide on whether to permit a church renovation “after consulting the concerned authorities.”

“The ‘concerned authority’ is not clear – it could stand for the security [police],” Sidhom commented to Compass. “If the security authorities are committed to the 30-day time limit, then I believe that this is a considerable step forward. But if not, then we are back to where we were before.”

The new decree delegates authority for church renovation to Egypt ’s 26 governors, following a trend established by similar directives in 1998 and 1999. Giving control to governors and the State Security Investigation (SSI), Egypt’s security police, those directives were touted as easing church repairs, but churches have found obtaining permission more difficult.

In recent years, local officials often used technicalities in the law to block church construction, even after the congregation had received presidential approval, according to the State Department’s IRFR. As a result, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches have resorted to constructing buildings that later they have been unable to register as new places of worship.

For the past 16 years, the Coptic Orthodox in Upper Egypt’s province of Sohag have been unsuccessfully applying to reopen St. George’s Church , a church source told Compass. The building was closed down by authorities in the village of Bani Khalid in May 1990 and has been standing empty ever since.

In another case cited by the IRFR, the Evangelical Church in the Cairo suburb of Maadi has been unable to obtain a license for 50 years.

“This decree which came from the president last week doesn’t really fulfill what the Copts are asking for, because it still discriminates between Christians and Muslims,” Naguib Gabriel of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization (EUHRO) said in an open letter to President Mubarak dated December 10.

“We are happy to see the issue addressed more openly by the government,” one Protestant leader in Cairo told Compass. “But we still would like to explain that this is a very small step forward and is designed to take the pressure off.”

That pressure came partly in the form of an international conference on Coptic rights held in Washington , D.C. last month. Both Coptic and Muslim participants called on the Egyptian government to promptly adopt “a unified law governing construction of the houses of worship.”

Presidential permission is still needed to construct a new church, while the building of a new mosque carries no such requirement.

Both Gabriel and Watani editor Sidhom believe that the inadequate reforms in the president’s new decree preempted a full solution to the issue of church construction. They fear that a bill brought before the Parliament prior to November’s parliamentary elections, calling for a unified law for both Muslims and Christians, may now be ignored.

Sidhom noted that Mubarak is also under political pressure after his National Democratic Party’s only serious rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, made unprecedented gains during the November parliamentary elections. The new decree on church construction may be an attempt to shore up support from the Copts.

Claiming 88 seats in recent elections and employing slogans like “Islam is the solution,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s success has created a sense of fear among Egypt ’s Christians and moderate Muslims alike. Although officially banned from politics, the Muslim group bypassed this restriction by running its candidates as independents.

Although the Christian community makes up at least 10 percent of Egypt ’s population, only one Christian, Finance Minister Yousef Boutros Ghali, was elected to the 454-seat assembly.

Yesterday Mubarak appointed five more Copts to the Parliament during a ceremony in which he distributed a total of 10 unelected seats reserved for presidential appointees.

In a nod to Coptic supporters three years ago, Mubarak declared Coptic Christmas, celebrated on January 7, a national holiday.

This year, Gabriel of the EUHRO said, he hopes Mubarak’s Christmas gift to Copts will be the abolishment of the Hamayouni law.