Many of Egypt’s Christians welcomed a recent decision by the Ministry of Housing allowing unlicensed churches to remain open while they go through the process of obtaining official permits. The decision aims to streamline that process, ease Christians' access to places of worship and guarantee their constitutional rights, the ministry said in a statement.
Officials also hope the move could cut down on sectarian violence. Some extremist groups have attacked churches under the pretext that they are unlicensed and therefore illegal.
Coptic Orthodox Church Archbishop Mikhail Anton is on a committee formed a year ago by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to legalize the unlicensed churches and their annexes, and to ease restraints imposed on building new churches. Anton told local media he had asked the ministry to allow 2,600 unlicensed churches and affiliated buildings in 14 governorates to remain open during the licensing procedure, but received no response. After the church inquired about the request, authorities told 14 governors not to stop prayers at those churches, Anton said.
The committee concerned with regulating the conditions of churches is made up of the ministers of defense and military production, housing, local development, justice, antiquities and legal affairs; parliament members; and representatives of the General Intelligence Directorate, the Administrative Control Authority and the National Security Sector of the Interior Ministry.
Assad Gamal, a Christian and former parliamentarian, said the Egyptian government in recent years has adopted a promising approach to look out for Christians, look into their problems and find solutions. “I have an overall feeling that the Egyptian leadership is paying due attention to Christians and is seeking in every possible way to facilitate their access to places of worship and give them their legal and constitutional rights,” Gamal told Al-Monitor.
However, Gamal added that Egyptian culture must also evolve and become more tolerant. “The government efforts should be supported by a societal understanding of the necessity to accept others and tolerate other religions and beliefs,” he said. “With such a revolution, Christians would feel a tangible change in their treatment and sectarian clashes in Egypt would definitely decline."
In August, parliament approved a law regulating church construction and renovation. The law has empowered governors to approve and facilitate such permits, a task previously assigned to security services. Before the law was passed, Christians struggled to obtain building permits, a process that in some cases could take years.
At a meeting of the church legalization committee earlier this month, acting Prime Minister and Minister of Housing Mostafa Madbouly urged pertinent bodies to facilitate requests for legalizing unlicensed churches. Madbouly has serving as acting prime minister while Ismail dealt with health issues.
On Christmas Eve, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also opened part of a new cathedral in the New Administrative Capital, saying the cathedral carried a message of peace and love to the whole world, not only Egypt.
Christine Milad, a Christian resident, told Al-Monitor, “It is the right of every person in Egypt to have easy access to perform his or her prayers. The decision of allowing the operation of unlicensed churches will make Christians feel that the government cares for them and seeks to solve their problems."
Milad said Christians should not have to undergo long, complicated procedures to legalize or build churches. “I think that it is our right, especially since Muslims do not undergo all those procedures when they build mosques,” she added.
Egypt’s Christians make up about 10% of the country’s population, which the CIA estimated at 97 million in 2017.
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