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ICC NOTE: Up untill December of 2005 it had been illegal to repair or rebuild new churches in Egypt, a restriction that was not placed on the Muslim faith. This editorial questions the government’s sincerity in implementing an easement on these restrictions.

Coptic Egyptian Website: Mubarak’s Recent Decree Allowing Church Renovation and Rebuilding is “Toothless”

For the full article go to: http://www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD112206 .

In early December, 2005, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a presidential decree easing the severe restrictions on repairing and rebuilding churches in Egypt.(1) In an editorial in the Coptic Internet weekly Watani, editor Youssef Sidhom stated that the decree would deliberately be implemented in a way that would render it meaningless, and cited a letter by an Egyptian governor substantiating this claim.

The following are excerpts from the editorial, which was posted in English on Watani:(2)

“Previous Presidential Decrees Which Eased Restrictions on Church Building Have Frequently Been Implemented in a Manner That Emptied Them of Their Content”

“[After the issuing of Decree 291,] the media rushed to praise [Mubarak’s] move, asking Copts of their opinion and pushing them to express their gratitude.

“While some Copts adopted a pessimistic stance and argued that the decree offered nothing new, Watani was keen to objectively analyze the move. We wrote that the decree was a good step forward on the road towards a unified law for places of worship and, if properly implemented, could alleviate many of the hardships of church building. We argued that the presidential authority over licensing new churches – as opposed to mosques, the building of which was subject to no restrictions whatsoever – violated equality among Egyptians. We wrote that the new decree should be taken with caution, since previous presidential decrees which eased restrictions on church building had been frequently implemented in a manner that emptied them of their content. Security authorities, Watani wrote, should not be allowed to interfere in the process, because they have been notorious in their restrictive domination of church building.”

“Was Decree 291 a Mere Attempt to Give the Egyptian Regime the [Appearance] of Tolerance Before the Outside World?”

“No more than a few weeks later, our fears materialized. It appears that the executive apparatuses in the municipalities are unhappy with the decree, and find it extremely difficult to give up the power to humiliate Copts and control church affairs. Before going into the details of the case in question however, a few questions beg answers. Who defends presidential decrees against trifling with? Was the decree 291 of 2005 a mere attempt to give the Egyptian regime a gloss-over of tolerance before the outside world?

Did the decree fulfill its purpose through mobilizing the media to praise the generosity of the regime? If the answers to these questions is no, how can the following story be explained?

“On 16 January 2006, the general manager of the office of Assiut governor sent the following letter to local administrators: ‘We have the honor to attach herewith the instructions concerning the restoration and renovation of existing churches. Please abide by these regulations with the utmost precision. The following documents should be attached to any application in this regard:

“1. A letter of authorisation from the head of the sect, citing the name and address of the person sanctioned to follow up on the procedures.

“2. A registered ownership document that should be reviewed by the legal department at the municipality.

“3. Six copies of the architectural drawings approved by a certified architect.

“4. A map of the site and its location, approved by the survey authority.

“5. A letter from the antiquities authority proving that the building is not registered among those of historical values.

“6. The presidential decree licensing the erection of the church.

“7. A report from the local building authority indicating the required work.

“8. A review of the architectural drawing in accordance with the law organizing and regulating building.

“9. The date the documents are delivered to our office after being completely reviewed is the date of the actual submission of the application.'”

“The [Governor’s] Letter Implies a Host of Violations to Presidential Decree 291”

“The letter implies a host of violations to the presidential decree 291 of 2005. First and foremost, the decree authorizes governors to approve the pulling down and rebuilding of existing churches, and stipulates that restoration and renovation may be conducted upon the approval of the local building authorities. Governors therefore have no role whatsoever in this regard. I do not believe that these facts were accidentally ignored. Rather, I assume the disregard was deliberate, because those who are well acquainted with reconstruction realize that the papers cited in the letter pertain to pulling down and rebuilding churches rather than restoring and renovating them. It should neither be comprehensible nor acceptable to confuse the two issues.

“Furthermore, the instruction of attaching the presidential decree which had originally licensed the erection of the church signifies a sinister intent, since an application for pulling down, rebuilding, or restoring a building should implicitly imply that the building is already there. This takes us back to the fact that many existing churches were originally built with no license, because of the difficulty – in many cases impossibility – of obtaining licenses for new churches. Authorities later accepted the existence of these churches as a fait accompli, stationed policemen to protect them, and enjoyed subjecting their congregations to the utmost indignity by controlling and trifling with the destiny of their places of worship. When it now comes to renovating or restoring these churches however, the authorities act as though these churches never existed. Some of these churches have been there for some sixty years when Egypt was a monarchy; are the church officials required to produce the royal decree which licensed the building?

“Those who extol the tolerance and generosity of the presidential decree 291 of 2005 should stand up to defend it. They should tell the governors and officials who appear incapable of grasping its meaning: ‘Shame on you.'”