“A unified law for building worship places... necessity and impediments” was the title of the seminar organised recently by MARED (Egyptians against Religious Discrimination). MPs, rights activists, public and media figures attended the seminar which was run by MARED founder and spokesman Mounir Megahed.
In his opening word Mr Megahed said it was eminently obvious that the State displayed intolerance where the building of churches was concerned. “The unified law [for building places of worship],” he said, "has not seen light despite the growing number of sectarian incidents. Which begs the question why the delay in passing the law?”
“Even though the unified law is generally seen to address a sectarian question,” Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, secretary-general of the Wafd Party and member of the National Council for Human Rights, said, “It in fact concerns a national issue.” The majority of recent sectarian violence erupted because Copts conducted their religious rites in buildings not licensed for that purpose, he noted.
Mr Abdel-Nour, however, warned that whoever believes that passing the unified law would alone put an end to the problems of building Christian places of worship is mistaken. “Sadly,” he said, “the prevailing culture is one of fanaticism. Whether propagated by school curricula or the media, the message is exclusive of the ‘other’. Attempts to purge school curricula of material that promotes discrimination against Christians have failed. The entire climate is scary.”
“Is it any surprise that such a climate spills over into Parliament?” Mr Abdel-Nour said. “The result is that the unified law has never been placed upon the agenda since there is no desire to discuss it in the first place. Society as a whole is not ready to apply this law since it does not believe in equality, and considers non-Muslims to be infidels.”
Good will gesture
Researcher at the Cairo Centre for Rights Studies Essam Hassan agreed that the unified law is not the magic solution for Coptic grievances, since licensed churches have also been assaulted. “Not only licensed churches,” he said, “But the least skirmish between a Copt and a Muslim results in the assault of Coptic churches, property, and homes.
“The State’s attitude towards freedoms in general, especially freedom of belief is very ambigious,” Mr Hassan added. “No law is applied in cases of sectarian violence; both sides of the conflict are forced to sit together and ‘reconcile’—which does not at all imply that justice is done. Egypt is seeing an alliance between the religious and the police states. The second article in the Constitution stipulates that Islam is the State religion.”
If the law is passed, Hussam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said, it would not work as a magic antidote to all sectarian problems. But it would definitely be a significant gesture of goodwill that would proclaim the state is not biased to one sector of the population against the other.
Mr Bahgat said that it is appalling that Copts would be subject to immeasurable humiliation just to obtain a permit to build a toilet or a wall. He cited the ‘reconciliation’ held in May 2007 Between the Coptic and Muslim villagers of Bemha in Ayyaat, Giza, following the devastating attack against Copts because they wished to build a church. The reconciliation terms stipulated that Copts may only build a church upon the issuance of all the necessary official permits—a rather far-fetched possibility—and the church should have no cross, bell or a dome.
“Yet despite the darkness,” Bahgat concluded, "there are glimpses of hope. When the Copts of Esna in Upper Egypt were assaulted in December 2007, several Muslims protected their Coptic neighbours and friends by taking them into their homes. Those few Muslims ought to be honoured.”