Christian leaders in Egypt hail decision to allow unlicensed churches to conduct services

Women pass by the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 10, 2017. | Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Several Christian leaders in Egypt have commended the latest decision made by the Ministry of Housing to allow worship services to be conducted at unlicensed churches pending their formal recognition.

In January 2017, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail created a committee to review requests to formally recognize unlicensed churches. The creation of the committee was in accordance with a 2016 law that eases restrictions on the construction of churches.

In a statement, the housing ministry said that the decision to allow unlicensed churches to conduct services came upon the request from Archpriest Michael Antoun, the Coptic Orthodox church's representative in the committee.

Antoun said that the Church had presented applications for the formal recognition of 2,600 churches and affiliated buildings in all Egyptian governorates by the end of September 2017. He further noted that the 2016 law allows unlicensed churches to conduct religious rites pending the legalization of their status.

Karim Kamal, a Coptic political researcher and president of Copts for the Nation, said that the housing ministry's decision is a positive step towards the implementation of the 2016 law on building churches.

"The issue of unlicensed churches is not a problem from the state, governors, the ministry of interior or housing. The real problem lies in the ultra-conservative Islamists in some villages in rural and Upper Egyptian governorates, who fuel tensions over small unlicensed churches to pressure security officials into closing these churches to prevent sectarian strife," Kamal said, according to Ahram Online.

Kamal urged the government to enforce the rule of law instead of resorting to mediating between parties to settle sectarian conflict.

Catholic Archpriest of Giza Antonios Aziz also hailed the housing ministry's decision, saying it would prevent the recurrence of sectarian disputes over unlicensed churches.

Last month, hundreds of Egyptians stormed an unlicensed church in Atfeh, 100 kilometers from the south of Cairo, and called for it to be demolished.

According to the diocese, the people were chanting "hostile" slogans in front of the Prince Tawadros church, which had been in use for almost 15 years and had already applied for a license under the 2016 law.

"They stormed the place and destroyed what was inside it, after assaulting the Christians there," the diocese said.

The incident was reportedly prompted by a rumor that the building would soon be officially recognized as a church.

Four churches had been closed down in Upper Egypt's Minya governorate in 2016 due to sectarian clashes over the premises being used as Christian places of worship without a license.

Egyptian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population of nearly 100 million, have struggled to obtain permits to construct new churches before the passage of the 2016 law.