JAFFA, Israel – Egyptian Christians have rejected a government-sponsored reform bill purportedly meant to ease building restrictions on churches.
While official church representatives welcomed the reform, some activists believe it would sustain discriminatory practices against the Christian community.
“The problem with this bill is that it treats the Christians as subjects, not full-fledged citizens,” Coptic activist Kamal Zacher said. “It hands over the jurisdiction to the Coptic Church and absolves the government of any constitutional responsibility towards the Christians.”
Zacher emphasized that the Egyptian constitution stipulates that “the parliament is the sole representative body of the Coptic citizens, and the delays in passing this bill demonstrate the great pressure applied on the government in devising this reform. This bill simply ignores all the rights and freedom of religion enshrined in international conventions of which Egypt is a signatory.”
The bill overlooks the existence of the cross as a physical object, he said, which “opens the door to some people to oppose putting up crosses on church buildings. It also enables local council heads the right to strike down planning proposals without providing an explanation. It leaves governors the prerogative over two very loosely defined criteria – the size of the Coptic population in a certain area and the degree of their need of a church. It is likely to cause a crisis, because it gives the state the authority to demolish buildings belonging to the Christian community and the church.”
Mina Majdy, the chairman of the Young Christians Association, said that the bill is the latest in a string of oppressive measures against the Copts.
“The bill makes church building a national security issue,” he said. “It includes opaque parameters such as the ‘appropriate number of Christians.’ According to whom? What are the objective parameters? What we Christians see as appropriate may not seem that to a government official. Our country needs a law that would stifle, rather than fan, the flames of sectarian tension.”
Said Fayez, a Christian lawyer, says that the bill does not address the restrictions on Christians’ freedom of religion.
“It’s a sham, a shameful bill, flammable and open-ended, allowing every governmental agent to interpret it according to their views,” he said.
“It’s a bad bill, it’s loosely worded and open to contradictory interpretations,” human rights activist Isaac Ibrahim said. “Instead of all the secrecy around its drafting, it should have been done in conjunction with Christian citizens, clerics and jurists. It allows the security forces to intervene in church building procedures.”
Former lawmaker and member of the Anglican Council Farid Bayadi said the bill includes “deadly venom,” and the government “left many loopholes that would effectively enable the prevention of church building.”