CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s lawmakers on Tuesday passed the country’s first law spelling out the rules for building a church, a step Christians have long hoped would free up construction that was often blocked by authorities. But angry critics in the community say the law will only enshrine the restrictions.
Church building has for decades been one of the most sensitive sectarian issues in Egypt, where 10 percent of the population of 90 million are Christians but where Muslim hardliners sharply oppose anything they see as undermining what they call the country’s “Islamic character.”
Local authorities often refuse to give building permits for new churches, fearing protests by Muslim ultraconservatives. Faced with refusals, Christians turned to building illegally or setting up churches in other buildings, which in many cases prompted riots and attacks by ultraconservatives. In contrast, building a mosque faces few restrictions.
Christians had hoped that the law would enshrine broad rights to build, encouraged by promises from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The Christian minority has been among el-Sissi’s staunchest supporters ever since, as army chief, he led the military’s ouster Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and launched a heavy crackdown on Morsi’s supporters.
But the law left critics, including some Christian lawmakers, embittered, warning that it will maintain Christians’ second-class status. The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which most Egyptian Christians belong, had at first opposed the bill but later backed it — and critics say it bent to heavy government pressure.
Under the law passed Tuesday, Christians must apply to the local provincial governor when they want to build a church.
The law stipulates that the size of the church must be “appropriate” to the number of Christians in the area. According to an official supplement to the law, the governor should also take into account “the preservation of security and public order” when considering the application.
The law “empowers the majority to decide whether the minority has the right to hold their religious practices,” said Ishaq Ibrahim, a top researcher in the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The law passed with support of two-thirds of the 596 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, according to Egypt’s state agency. Though many of the body’s 36 Christian members had previously spoken out against it, in the end they largely voted in favor.