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New Law Would Equalize Muslims and Copts on Houses of Worship

June 8, 2011

It's usually been much easier to get permission to build a mosque than a churce--a significant bone of contention for Christians in Egypt.

There is a fascinating story in Farha Ghannam’s excellent ethnography of urban Cairo Remaking the Modern in which she describes the disputes that arose in 1981 in the poor urban neighborhood of az-Zawiya al-Hamra as Christians seeking to build a church had the space hijacked by Muslims. One of the Christians gets so frustrated he fires a gun at Muslims praying on the site, instigating violent reprisals by Muslims (albeit there were many stories of Muslims protecting their Christian neighbors as well).

The fact that Christians must spend months seeking permission to build churches, while Muslims seem to be able to build mosques at will has long been a touchstone of Christian discontent. A new law proposed by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would change that, putting all houses of worship under the same rules.

As described in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper and other sources, the new law would require anyone wishing to build a place of worship to apply to the governor’s office. The governor must respond within three months with a solid rationale for turning down the proposal, or it is automatically approved.

Some protest that the decision should not be given to the governors. My understanding is that the governors have always been the authority to whom people had to apply. The difference was that under the old rules, churches had to be approved by state security before the governor’s office could offer its own decision. Now the governor has that shackle removed.

There are good governors and bad governors (many of my Egyptian friends insist there are more bad governors than good ones). So much depends on the new electoral politics. Will governors be directly elected or appointed by the national government in Cairo? And given the minority status of the Copts, would an elected governorate be a good thing or a bad thing where church building is concerned?

The new law, if implemented, equalizes the rules in principle. What will happen in practice is another thing altogether.

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