The good news: Preconditions on the number of adherents are reportedly out. In theory, police and security forces cannot block approved construction. There is a time limit aimed at preventing officials from denying a permit simply by delaying it indefinitely. And Christians no longer have to apply for permits all the way from the president’s or prime minister’s office, where their petitions would obviously go on a back burner.
The causes for concern: On paper, “the same rules would apply to the construction of mosques and churches,” and one major change will be that the approval process will be delegated to local councils. But in that regard, the new system sounds alarmingly like that of Indonesia, where permission for churches is also dependent on local approval. There, too, while churches and mosques are supposedly equally subject to the permit system, the deck is stacked against Christians as a simple matter of numbers: they are the minority and will be at the mercy of the whims of the Muslim majority.
In that regard, Egypt could now claim it is majority rule that handles these issues. Democracy in action, the fruits of the revolution. And decentralization allows the government to wash its hands of oversight to some extent, or to delay investigating allegations of discrimination, claiming insufficient resources or time to commit to the issue.
There is still a great deal that could go wrong. “New law on church and mosque construction,” from Asia News, June 2:
Cairo (AsiaNews) — Egypt’s Ministry of Local Development has drafted a bill that would regulate the construction of places of worship. It would give Christians and Muslims the same rights. The text of the new bill was presented to Christian religious leaders. Mgr Rafik Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church, said the draft bill “is a good thing”. He said he hoped it would not change before its final approval.
“It is only a bill,” he told AsiaNews. “We have to evaluate the final version before approval, but it is rather good.” The law new bill, which has six articles, should be adopted by the end of June. It contains some revolutionary elements.
“First, the same rules would apply to the construction of mosques and churches,” Mgr Greiche noted.
“Towards the end of the Mubarak regime, parliament was considering a law on churches alone, which would be treated differently from mosques. The fact that both now would be treated the same way is a good thing.” Mgr Greiche said.
In the past, under Mubarak, building permits for churches required the authorisation of the president or the prime minister. “Now, local councils are in charge,” Mgr Greiche said. “In addition, a two-month time limit is in place; if local authorities do not act, an application is considered approved by default.”
This provision could still potentially be weakened by the ability to obtain extensions under “special” circumstances.
“Egypt’s notorious bureaucracy used to undermine all attempts to build churches. One day, the required engineer was not in; the next day, the right official was not there . . . and this went on and on, for years.”
Discrimination between churches and mosques existed also at another level. “Before, an application would be considered only if there was a certain number of faithful (up to 100,000). Under the new law, there are no preconditions. This is why the new law is a good thing.”
Likewise, “The police cannot intervene. In the past, security forces had the power to block construction under any pretext, true or false. The bureaucracy and police tried to stop church building in any way they could. For mosques instead, it was always a breeze.”
A different but real problem Christians still face is opposition from fundamentalist and Salafist groups who sometimes try to prevent Christians from using the churches they already have.
“This problem is particularly acute in some parts of the country, like Luxor or Arman. In other parts, things are calm.”
“The new law is especially important for the new satellite towns built around Cairo, where the need for churches is crying. In the villages, where poverty is high, fundamentalists do their best to prevent church construction. I hope this bill is not changed. I am cautious, but full of hope.”