Egypt Bill for Worship Houses Under Fire

Cairo, Egypt - A new bill for building mosques and churches in Egypt is coming under fire from Muslims and Christians alike.

The bill includes "strange" terms, Akram Lamei, a spokesman for the Egyptian Evangelical Church, told The Los Angeles Times on Thursday, June 23.

He described the bill's ban on the building of two or more houses of worship within one area of one kilometer was flawed.

"We have three Christian sects in Egypt," Lamei said.

"Such a large space of one kilometer could be accepted when implemented on two churches of one sect, but it's too much for two churches from different sects," he said.

The Egyptian government has issued a nine-article bill for building house of worship earlier this month. The draft was put for public debate before final approval.

The law is meant to replace an Ottoman-era law regulating church construction and maintenance, which stipulates the need to obtain prior approval from the president himself to build a new church or to expand or restore an existing one.

Former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled on 11 February, had delegated the authority of granting permits for building, expanding or renovating churches to governors.

The governors, in turn, linked their approval to the consent of security agencies, topped by the infamous State Security Service, which was dissolved in March.

The procedures were seen by Egypt's Copts as discriminatory, especially since there is no such process for mosque construction.

Under the new bill, no security approval would be needed for getting a building license.

Governors will be authorized to license the building, demolishing, replacing, restoring, or modifying of places of worship, as well as associated expansions or repairs, so long as they follow certain conditions.

The building of worship places has been a source of tensions in recent months, which occasionally flare up into violent incidents between Muslims and Copts in Egypt.

Limited Freedoms

Lamei said the bill did not put into consideration the population density of Copts in some areas.

"In some towns and villages with high density, we have churches very close to each other to serve a number of communities in one area," Lamei said.

Muslims were also critical.

Mamdouh Ismail, an Egyptian lawyer and a Muslim Brotherhood member, said the one mosque per square kilometer is not enough for Muslims in some highly dense areas.

“Where can millions of Muslims pray? Are we going to pray in the streets or will this also be banned?” Ismail told Human Rights First blog.

“The draft law clearly discriminates against Muslims and limits their freedom to build mosques, which may lead to an unprecedented wave of anger.”

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies sent a memo to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf this week calling for the withdrawal of the bill.

"The provisions of the bill are directed explicitly at recognized religions in Egypt, which means that no consideration is given to the exercise of these rights by followers of religions or sects unrecognized by Islamic jurisprudence or representatives of the Coptic church," reads the memo.

According to the CIA World Fact Book, Muslims make up 90 percent of the country's 80 million people, Copts 9 and other Christians 1 percent.