A Permit to Pray: Part 1
03/20/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – On January 6, the eve of Orthodox Christmas, Egyptian President Sisi opened the Middle East’s largest church. The Nativity of Christ Cathedral is a “message of peace and love to the world,” Sisi said in a speech. “But we still have to protect the tree of love we planted together today because seditions never end.”
The cathedral’s opening was welcomed by many Egyptian Christians, and is indeed a moment of historic importance. However, the ease of building the cathedral, albeit in a location where few Christians live, overshadows the challenges endured by other churches seeking official recognition.
In 2016, President Sisi introduced legislation that claimed to streamline the church legalization process. The law’s impact is mixed. On a positive note, the law reformed the centuries-old practice requiring the head of state to endorse all church construction. The law now allows provincial governors to approve churches and created a committee to review the applications of 3,800 unlicensed churches.
This decision was applauded by many. One priest in Upper Egypt shared how previous restrictions had given congregations a sense of homelessness. “We were praying in our houses. Many times the police came … It was a very painful situation for us.”
The new committee provided hope that currently active, but illegal, churches would gain official recognition. However, at the time of writing, nearly three years later, the committee has approved just under 600 churches. “It is a complex issue,” one Christian committee observer shared with ICC. He points to building codes as the reason for the committee’s slowness.
“The committee has a combination of different personalities. Some want to finish and can understand the reality on the ground,” he said. “[They] would approve it if the building has the minimum approved conditions. But the other[s] [are] working by the book. That is why it takes so long to reach a middle ground.”
The construction of new churches, however, is more contentious.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming tomorrow.
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