By Amy Penn
07/21/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Egypt has used church licenses as another form a persecution by denying Christians the ability to worship God as a community. Prior to 2016, old church licensing laws made it nearly impossible for Christians to legally build churches. Even the new law, passed in August 2016, allows Muslim hardliners to block church construction and continue long-standing discrimination against Christians. International Christian Concern (ICC) sat down with Christians from several villages to see how the law has changed their fight for a church.
Before the 2016 church licensing law, the governing church licensing act had elements dating back to the 1856 Ottoman Caliphate. Christians in Egypt could not legally build a church without the approval of the neighboring Muslim community and the president of Egypt. Eventually, the law extended to renovations as well. For instance, if you wanted to re-carpet the sanctuary, build an addition, or add a bathroom, you would need the Egyptian president’s approval.
The bureaucratic red tape made it nearly impossible to gain licensing so, as a result, many churches were built without proper licensing. For example, in the village of Dabous, Christians built a church in the early 2000s because of the “near-impossibility of obtaining [a] license.” Muslim hardliners even assigned guards to keep the people from having church there. So Dabous’ Christians searched for another way to worship together.
House churches were one alternative, but they were silenced too. In 2008, Christians gathered at Benjamin Ghattis’ home for a house mass for Lent. According to Nabil, a resident of Dabous, Ghattis was “arrested by police and only released when he signed a pledge not to use his house for any future worship.”
In 2009, 32 Christians were arrested for having a prayer meeting in a house. The charge: “Practicing Christian religious rites without license.” Since then, Muslim hardliners in Dabous have defeated all Christians’ attempts to build places of corporate worship.
In Saft Al-Kharsa, Muslim hardliners attacked the homes of four Christians in July 2016, who the hardliners suspected of trying to convert a house into a church. After the attack, a “reconciliation session” was held and the parties convened there determined that the house should be used as a residence with the top floor reserved for weddings and funerals, but not a church until the necessary permits were obtained. This meant that Christians in Saft Al-Khara could not have a church until the president approved their request.
Finally, in August 2016, the Egyptian parliament passed a new church licensing law. The 13 articles contain four main provisions dictating church licensing.
- The provincial governor has to approve the church license rather than the President.
- The church size must be proportional to the Christian population in the area.
- The church cannot be a security risk.
- Unlicensed churches built before passage of law and deemed structurally sound can gain licensure retroactively.
Lawyers and activists, however, recognize massive flaws in these provisions. Coptic activist, Amir Fakhry, told ICC that the first provision is problematic because “governors in rural areas and in Upper Egypt will be vulnerable to pressure from Muslim hardliners to oppose the construction of churches…individual governors can deny church permits based on any estimate of their own convenience.”
The second provision is based on faulty information – there is not official nor reliable data on Egypt’s Christian population. Magdy Hanna, a Christian lawyer, noted, “[This article] is considered a great restriction on the construction of churches, as there are no accurate statistics of the number of Christians in Egypt in general, so this article will deprive many Christians of having a church in their village or town.”
Third, Muslim hardliners can create a security risk by rioting around a church. If officials encounter a riot around a church, then they can deny a church a license because they consider the church as the reason for a riot.
Today, the law has been in effect for almost a year. Has it helped? Not for the villages we followed-up with. In Dabous, for example, the unlicensed church should have been declared structurally sound and retroactively licensed according to the new law. Nabil told ICC, “Even after the passage of the law for building churches in 2016…our village church has not yet been licensed.”
In Al-Kom al-Ahmar, a pastor received official approval to repair and renovate his church in May 2017, after the new law was passed. Hundreds of Muslim hardliners protested against it even after the frustrated pastor had “sought official permits for…[the] renovation of a three-story building [even going] to the Muslim villages last April to tell them about the decision…I did not find any objection.” Eventually, Muslim villagers, some members of Parliament, and security forces decided that the church could open, but could only be one-story and not have a cross.
In Saft Al-Kharsa, the bishop filed a church license request under the new church law in November 2016, but still has received no response. In the meantime, congregants continued to use a building as a church. However, in June 2017, congregants arrived to find that police had raided the church, thrown the church’s property into the street, and chained the door shut.
Outraged and exasperated, church leaders gathered in another reconciliation session with Muslims and the governor, demanding that the church be licensed under the new law. The governor refused, stating that the building was dilapidated and could not receive retroactive licensing. Plus, the governor surprised the clerics by declaring that the new church licensing law was not in effect because executive bylaws haven’t been issued.