With the presidential elections coming up next week, some Copts are hoping that candidate Ahmed Shafiq, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s prime minister and a former military commander, would be the one to help end the discriminatory rules concerning building churches.
The church-building policy in Egypt has been the subject of a heated debate for years. Controversial legislation makes it easy to build a mosque but hard to raise or even repair a church. A new mosque only needs a permit from the local district, while a church needs additional paper work signed by the president himself.
The law goes back to the 19th century, Kurt J. Werthmuller, Research Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, wrote. However, as far as the law may have been seen as progressive then, “in the context of contemporary Egypt, it has meant that Coptic Christians have been required to submit presidential petition to not just build new churches, but to expand, renovate, or even make simple repairs in existing ones,” Werthmuller said.
In 2005, Mubarak altered the policy by issuing a presidential decree that delegated the authority for such permissions to the nation’s governors.
“This meant,” Werthmuller explained, “that if a village priest had to repair a broken toilet or cracked wall in his church, he would still have to go a high regional executive for permission.”
Even if a church was initially granted permission for building, renovation, or repair, the possibility remained that it would have to contend with the threat of village mobs, angered at Christian improvements and often provoked by local preachers, the research fellow added.
Many Copts reportedly look toward the new president for a solution to the problem, as well as a guarantee of an end to violence against their community.
According to a recent poll, conducted by the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organisations (EUHRO), a majority of Coptic Christians in Egypt support candidate Amr Moussa, a Muslim, one-time Arab League chief and former foreign minister under Mubarak.
Religious minorities in Egypt reportedly fear the rise of religious extremists, especially following violence against the Coptic Christian community immediately after Mubarak was toppled in the Arab Spring revolution of Jan. 2011. The Copts blame religious radicals for a surge of attacks on churches.
Moussa, the more moderate candidate, attempted in a recent television debate to assure voters of his good will toward respecting the rights of religious minorities and the fairness of Sharia law toward the whole of society. He insisted in the nation’s first televised presidential debate that the general principles of Islamic law should be implemented as they existed in the pre-Mubarak, 1971 constitution.
A senior Orthodox Coptic Church official said recently that six million Copts are among the 50 million voters eligible to go to the polls on May 23 and 24, and again next month in a run-off if no candidate scores more than 50 per cent in the first round. The Christian vote might swing the outcome, experts have reportedly said.
Meanwhile, Islamist politicians who already dominate Egypt’s parliament claimed during the presidential campaigns that Christians, who form about a tenth of Egypt’s 82 million mostly-Sunni Muslim population, would not be sidelined no matter the outcome. (AINA)