Egypt’s burdensome regulations on church-building could be removed under new government proposals which one local bishop says would mark a “major step forward for the citizenship of Christians” and a vindication of the public protests begun on January 25.
“What we are seeing here is one of the first fruits of the demonstrations back in January. When the Christians demonstrated, they asked for their rights and the first right they demanded was the construction of churches,” said Coptic Catholic Bishop Kyrillos Kamal William Samaan of Assiut.
“Everybody knows that this has been a big problem for the Christians. Many moderate people have recognized it,” Bishop William told Aid to the Church in Need.
He said more than half of the problems Christians face will be resolved if they make progress on this issue.
“If these proposals come into law, it could mean that building churches will be almost on the same level as constructing mosques,” the bishop added.
Egypt’s 10 million Christians face strict church construction rules which are frequently cited as one of the most serious forms of anti-Christian oppression. The laws presently require presidential permission to build churches, an approval process which causes delays of years or even decades.
If the proposed change takes place, the proposals would go before the regional governor for a decision within three months.
Bishop William said that he is “optimistic.” The Egyptian government already shows signs of easing the restrictions.
Permission for two churches in his diocese in Upper Egypt had come through before the January 25th revolution that drove President Hosni Mubarak from office. Applications for another three churches have been approved in the last few weeks. Only one application from the diocese is outstanding and a decision on that is expected soon.
However, the proposal to change the restrictions is controversial for some Muslim groups, including Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement which was tightly controlled by President Mubarak’s government.
On May 7 extremists attacked three Coptic Orthodox churches in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba. Fifteen people died and more than 230 were injured.
This was the peak of their power, Bishop William said. Islamists are now losing support in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections in the fall. A number of governors, including the governor of Assiut, are open to Christians and resistant to extremists’ demands to shift the nation towards an Islamic theocracy.
“Of course the Salafists continue to interfere but their campaign of slander cannot get the support of moderate Muslims who do not accept their complaints against Christians,” the bishop said.
Christians and Muslims are holding interfaith meetings to promote mutual respect and cooperation, he added.