Tuesday, March 24, 2009

the situation of the Copts in Egypt -The Most Respected Law in the Land

On July 18, 2008, a ten-page letter was sent by facsimile from the office of Egypt’s Foreign Minister to his counterpart in a certain country in Central Europe, regarding the situation of the Copts in Egypt. It came in response to queries that followed strong complaints by that country’s citizens of Egyptian origin.At the time, we were careful not to rush to comment - hoping that the mere fact of trying to send such an elaborate letter might be an indication that the “political leadership” in Egypt has finally come to realize the need to address the “Coptic Issue,” rather than continue to live in denial.However, months passed by without the least indication of an intention to take any action - except sending a number of missions to try to stifle the rising anger of Diaspora Copts. Therefore, we felt it necessary to go back to that letter with analysis and comments. In this article we shall limit ourselves to the “church building” issue, as it has become a flaring point and a source of numerous attacks against innocent Copts, over the years.*** �Under the title “Churches in Egypt,” the Egyptian letter says:Year Expansion, Reparation, Restoration and Maintenance of Churches New Churches1998 179 51999 340 102000 399 102001 304 122002 175 22003 237 82004 165 62005 273 92006 310 12007 91 2 2475 65(Note that the correct total of the second column should be 2473).Governorate Number of Churches & Monasteries Number according to IDSC Diff.Cairo 288 183 105Alexandria 125 68 57Port Said 22 20 2Suez 13 8 5Damietta 7 8 -1El Daqahleya 46 39 7El Sharqeya 62 43 19El Qalyoubeya 62 37 25Kafr El Sheikh 13 11 2El Gharbeyah 57 51 6El Monofeyah 67 35 32El Beheirah 45 35 10El Ismaileyah 21 15 6El Gizah 78 68 10Beni Sweif 84 52 32El Fayoum 37 37 0El Menyah 524 406 118Asyout 425 425 0Souhag 270 272 -2Qenna 123 80 43Aswan 38 26 12Luxor 21 20 1Red Sea 15 2 13El Wadi Gadid 2 1 1Matrouh 4 3 1Narth Sinai 2 2 0South Sinai 5 3 2TOTAL 2456 1878 578(Note: in the above table, we added a column showing the number of churches according to the 2007 report by the IDSC (Information and Decision-Support Center, which is affiliated to the Prime Minister’s cabinet).Under the title “Efforts at the National Level to Further Entrench The Rights of Coptic Christian Egyptians,” the letter says:<3.>***We have the following comments:First, a purely arithmetical observation: The total number of churches and monasteries given in the above table as 2456 is 264 less than what is mentioned elsewhere in the same letter (2524 churches plus 196 monasteries). Neither figure matches the IDSC’s report - with a discrepancy up to 646.Also, the stated number of monasteries appears quite exaggerated. The Coptic Orthodox monasteries must be below 25, not 84; and those of other denominations cannot possibly reach 112. The figures probably include monasteries in other brotherly Arab countries!But one shouldn’t be too alarmed by such confusing discrepancies and errors: They could be consequences of globalization, the current international financial crisis and the effects of climatic change!Second, there is no way to adequately check the veracity of the number of repair permits. But a recent incident of a church in Maragha district, Sohag governorate, in which eight Copts died, may be indicative of what happens in reality:Back in 1979, Sohag’s habitation department reported the presence of numerous cracks in the one century-old mud-brick church. Between 1986 and 2006, more inspections confirmed the life-threatening condition of the building, and the area’s bishop repeatedly pleaded with the authorities to issue a permit to rebuild it. In November 2008, the area’s State Security (SS!) officer finally inspected the building and was so alarmed by its condition that he asked for the engineering drawings of the replacement building to be urgently submitted, in order to obtain the necessary approvals from the authorities ‘in Cairo.’ In January 2009, as one wall collapsed, the priest was told to start the demolition and prepare for rebuilding. However, once the demolition was completed, he was ordered by the SS not to start rebuilding before the permit was issued. In spite of the fact that the priest had warned that the neighboring houses, whose foundations were exposed, were in danger, relentlessly, the SS refused even to allow temporary scaffolding of the neighboring walls. No wonder, on February 19, two walls collapsed, and eight people, present at the site, were buried under the rubble.Certainly, the loss of these innocent lives is the responsibility of the State - from the smallest SS chief all the way to the top… The incident also clearly indicates that the new rules of “delegating the issuing of repair permits to the governors” are rather meaningless since it is the SS (in Cairo!) who always decide - no matter who ‘signs’ the permits afterwards.Third, the reported dismal figure of 65 new-church permits in the past ten years hides the fact that most of the related presidential decrees were actually issued to ‘regularize’ the situation of churches built decades ago. Governments in certain periods did not enforce the policy, which is based on an Ottoman Hamayoni Decree and the related humiliating ‘ten conditions.’ This decree, issued in 1856, has been rigorously adhered to since 1971.In fact the number of new-church permits in 2006-2007 (a total of THREE, according to the above table) is indicative of the sad reality. Also, according to reports by EIPR (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights), all the 17 presidential decrees issued in 2008 were, without exception, related to repair work or to regularization of existing churches.The present procedures make building a church a hellish adventure, which typically requires decades of arduous work. The SS chieftains usually take pleasure in imposing their hegemonic authority before and after obtaining a presidential decree. Moreover, lots of ‘pious’ people everywhere appear keen on performing their self-proclaimed sacred duty of ensuring that no non-Muslim dares to pray anywhere without proper authorization.In a country where everyone (whether the government or individuals) rarely respects the law, unless it is in their own interest, one finds an amazing unison in applying the “Hamayoni Decree” in both letter and spirit. This makes it worthy of being labeled “the most respected law in the land.”Incidentally, even if we assume that the real number of decreed permits of ‘new’ churches in the past ten years was as much as half the given figure of 65- which is a virtually impossible assumption - it still means a mere total increase of 1.3% in a decade, which is less than the demographic growth per year.Furthermore, if we consider that the Copts represent just 10% of Egypt’s population, or about 8.5 million, and since 90% of them belong to the Coptic (Orthodox) Church, we can deduce that there is at best one church per 5900 persons of that community. No wonder then that entire villages or suburbs with hundreds, even thousands, of Coptic families, find themselves forced to travel long distances in order to conduct marriage or funeral rites, not to mention worship, because they are denied a permission to have a church. Note also that the Coptic Evangelicals, who make up about 7-8% of the total Copts, are divided into 18 denominations, each having its own churches, which are often no more than small prayer halls.On the other hand, Egypt boasts 120,000 mosques (plus about 900,000 prayer halls), of which 100,500 mosques (Al-Ahram, May 1, 2008) are run by the Ministry of (Islamic) Endowments. This amounts to one mosque per 640 Muslim citizens (or 75 if we include prayer halls).*** Apart from the shortage and procedural difficulties, the essential point that the government’s letter deliberately ignores, is related to the principle: churches are dealt with in a totally different way from mosques. The simple fact of keeping track of church repair permits proves the point, since nobody needs to obtain a permit to build, let alone repair, a mosque.As is well known, the introduction of each presidential decree to build a church says: “After referring to the Constitution and the Law, we have decreed…” But one is left flabbergasted as to which article in the Constitution the President is referring to in issuing such a decree, which defies Articles 40 and 46 (regarding “equality” and “freedom” of belief) in the very same Constitution!All in all, the government’s deliberate discriminatory policies in this regard are difficult to disguise, and any talk about “fully enjoying constitutionally guaranteed rights,” as the government’s letter bombastically claims, is shameful.***The important question now is about the unified law for building places of worship, which the letter says is “under study,” whereas in reality it has only been a proposal for a bill (collecting dust in a drawer, instead of being placed on the agenda of parliamentary rounds.)Evidently, the government’s position in this issue flagrantly contradicts the fundamentals of the modern state and defies international norms of human rights. But it has its roots in the letter and spirit of Islamic Shari’a regarding the dthimitude. All along the history of the ‘Islamic State,’ freedom of worship (let alone freedom of ‘belief’) has never been granted without cumbersome shackles. Will the Egyptian government (which feverishly tries to appear more ‘pious’ than the Muslim Brotherhood, and has the Shari’a enshrined in its Constitution) dare to issue a new equitable law?We believe the answer regarding the near future is a resounding ‘No.’ The other alternative, which is as bad, is to simply codify the current ugly practices in a new law.At the end, there is little solace to the Copts, unless the state, from the top, decides to chart a whole new direction regarding the citizenship of the Copts .

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