The following is a guest post by George Sadek, a senior legal research analyst at the Law Library of Congress. George has contributed a number of posts to this blog, including posts on Egypt’s new antiterrorism law, the legal processes available to imprisoned journalists in Egypt, the trial of Seif al Islam al Gaddafi, constitutional developments in Egypt, and the 2015 municipal elections in Saudi Arabia.
More than two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the new law. The law was required by article 325 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014, which states that “during its first legislative term following the effective date of this Constitution, the House of Representatives shall issue a law to regulate constructing and renovating churches, in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians.”
The law consists of ten provisions. Article 1 provides definitions of various terms. Article 2 restricts the size of new churches by linking this to the number of people who make up the Christian population in the area where the church is to be built. Article 3 requires the legal representatives of the relevant Christian sect to submit a request to construct a church, including appropriate documents verifying the ownership of the land where the church is intended to be built. The request must include the measurements of the church, the design and height of any minarets, as well as information about the land area on which the church will be built. Article 5 requires the governor of the relevant region to respond to the requests within 120 days. This article also stipulates that if the governor rejects a request, he must state the reasons for the refusal. Article 7 does not allow the church building to be used for any purpose other than worship. For instance, the church building cannot be a clinic or a social hall where funeral and wedding events could take place. Article 8 of the law allows existing churches, which have not been authorized under the law, to legalize their status after submitting their papers to an administrative committee formed by the prime minister.
I noticed that the law generated debate among individuals and groups who support and oppose it. For instance, church officials endorse the law and consider it to be an historical achievement. They stated that it will help to solve many of the problems faced in the construction of churches over the past few decades. Also, thirty-six Christian members of parliament supported the enactment of the law. They argued that, before the recent legislation, permits for either building or renovating church buildings had to be issued by presidential decrees. They considered that the law makes it much easier as groups would only have to deal with local provincial authorities to obtain those permits.On the other hand, some Christian legal scholars have raised concerns about the law. They consider it to be a legal tool that will impede the construction of churches for decades to come. For example, Judge Nabil Saleeb Awadallah, the former chief justice of the Cairo Court of Appeal and former head of the Supreme Electoral Commission, has strongly criticized the law. He states that such a piece of legislation was supposed to be issued by the People’s Assembly forty years ago, after incidents of sectarian violence broke out between Muslims and Christians in 1972, known as the “al-Khanka events.” He also argues that the new law violates articles 9, 53, and 89 of the Egyptian Constitution, which promote the principles of equality, religious freedom, and right to establish places of worship. Moreover, Chief Justice Awadallah claims that the law uses wide and ambiguous terms that allow different legal interpretations. For instance, article 6 of the law uses the term “the administrative entity” responsible for approving construction, without defining this term. He also added that the new law does not provide any mechanism to appeal if the governor rejects the request to construct a church.
Finally, Chief Justice Awadalla asserts that article 2 of the new law directly infringes on the right to freedom of worship, which is stated in article 64 of the Constitution. As noted above, article 2 limits the size of the church based on the size of the Christian population living in the area as well as their need to build a place of worship. Given these restrictions, Chief Justice Awadalla is concerned that a governor could deny Christians their right of worship by rejecting their request to construct a church because they are few in number or if the governor feels that there is no need to build a church in that area.
With its publication in the gazette, the law has now taken effect. It will be interesting to see how it is implemented and whether further issues or controversies arise.