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Egypt’s Murbarak Play’s Games With the Egyptian Church

Youssef Sidhom

On 7 December 2005 President Hosni Mubarak issued Decree 291 of 2005 to facilitate the procedures required for restoring, renovating, pulling down and rebuilding existing churches. The media rushed to praise the move, asking Copts of their opinion and pushing them to express their gratitude. Some even went to the length of deluding the public into believing that the decree put an end to all the problems of building churches.
They claimed the Himayouni Edict—which pre-requires a presidential decree for the building of any new church—was abolished once and for all, and that complete equality among Egyptians as regards building and restoring places of worship has been attained.
While some Copts adopted a pessimistic stance and argued that the decree offered nothing new, Watani was keen to objectively analyse 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.
No more than a few weeks later, our fears materialised. 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 glossover of tolerance before the outside world? Did the decree fulfil its purpose through mobilising 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 honour 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 organising 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 letter implies a host of violations to the presidential decree 291 of 2005. First and foremost, the decree authorises 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 realise 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”.