Oxford, England — The Coptic Catholic church has welcomed a new Egyptian law to facilitate the building of Christian places of worship.
On Aug. 30 Egypt passed a law codifying the rights of Christians to build and renovate churches in the mostly Muslim country. Under the new 10-article law, approved by the Egyptian parliament, regional governors must rule within four months on Christian church-building and renovation applications and provide a "justified decision," subject to appeal, if refusing authorization.
Critics have warned some provisions are vaguely worded and say clauses requiring the size of a church to be "commensurate with the number of Christian community members," taking account of "expected population growth," could be used by local officials to block permits.
"There've been some criticisms, but the government has tried to resolve any problems, and we now have a law which meets modern needs," said Fr. Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Coptic Catholic church. "No law can be like the Bible -- it has to be interpreted and it can be changed. But having had the same law since the Ottoman Empire, we're satisfied we now have one which seeks to avoid sectarian enmities."
Greiche told Catholic News Service Sept. 2 that Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches had been represented by legal experts on the commission drafting the law, which had been actively promoted by Egypt's president, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail.
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Priests who ministered in Egypt under the old law said any permit that had to do with a church building had to be signed by the president. One priest said he waited 21 years for a permit to build churches. They also said state or local officials could stop construction for "security issues." One priest cited the example of a mosque being built next to a Catholic church, and local authorities closed the church because Muslim authorities complained the long Sunday liturgies interfered with their noon call to prayer.
The 200,000-member Catholic church has 14 dioceses in Egypt, including pastoral services for Latin, Melkite, Armenian, Chaldean, Maronite and Syriac Catholics. The much larger Coptic Orthodox church makes up at least 10 percent of Egypt's population of 82.5 million.
Greiche said Catholics kept a "low profile" in Egypt compared to the Coptic Orthodox church, but hoped to carry on building churches, especially in new residential areas around Cairo, Alexandria and other cities.
"Catholics have moved to these modern areas, so the church has to move with them," the church spokesman said. "We want to serve the whole society, not just the Christian community. We've already built schools and hospitals, so our mission extends beyond our own parishes."