“Long live the crescent and the cross!” shouted Egypt’s parliament in joy. All 39 Christian members joined the two-thirds majority to vote to end a 160-year practice instituted by the Ottomans requiring Christians to get permission from the country’s leader before building churches. The long-awaited reform was promised by the 2014 constitution after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.
The new law shifts authority into the hands of the governor, who must issue a decision within four months of an application and give detailed reasons for refusals. The law also established a process to retroactively license hundreds of churches erected without a presidential permit.
“It is a good step,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, who helped negotiate the draft law with government officials. “If we wanted an agreement to include everything and please everyone, it would have taken 100 years.
“This is the best we can get right now.”
But even as they celebrated, Christians debated if they failed to fully seize a unique opportunity to pursue equal citizenship. Some wanted a unified law for both churches and mosques. Others noted the presence of loopholes that may impede church construction. For example, the “need” for a new church is tied to population growth. And local officials or police may be able to encumber the process if Muslims object.
“The law is a legalized perpetuation of the status quo,” said Ishak Ibrahim, religion officer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “It does not address the roots of sectarian tension and shows [that] the state prefers adherents of one religion over ...1