In Egypt, a law designed to open doors has served to close them instead. Dozens of Coptic Christian churches have been shut down since Law 80/2016, also known as the Church Construction Law, took effect two years ago. The reform measure, required as part of the constitution adopted following the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in 2014, was intended to secure the right of worship by Copts and other religious minorities. Instead, it has become a driver of sectarian violence.
In late August, while congregants worshipped inside the Virgin Mary and St. Mohrael Coptic Orthodox church in Upper Egypt, an angry Muslim mob gathered outside to protest against the legalization of the church. According to an eyewitness, the crowd tried to break down the front door. The police arrived and dispersed the demonstrators then closed the church building, sealed it, and security forces cordoned off the village streets.
This was the eighth such incident in this particular diocese alone. Churches in other regions throughout Egypt have experienced similar attacks as well, several in the past few weeks. All had filed applications under Law 80/2016 to obtain the necessary permits for registration, renovation, or construction. And that’s when the trouble began.
The tensions associated with the current law are underscored in a report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR): “Typically, Copts in villages submit applications for the construction of a church to official bodies after meeting all the required conditions, but the applications are frozen due to objections from the security apparatus or as a result of incitement from local residents opposed to the construction of a church.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports that only a handful of the more than 5,500 churches that have applied for permits under the church construction law have received approvals. Meanwhile, sectarian attacks against Christians and churches have escalated and the perpetrators have been met with impunity. In some cases, the violence has turned deadly.
“The Egyptian government has failed to stop attacks on Copts and has repeatedly refused to punish the attackers,” said Samuel Tadros, researcher at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in testimony this July before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “In the past five years, there have been over 500 sectarian attacks on Copts. Most of these attacks are in the form of mob attacks in villages, driven by attempts to deny Copts from building a church or as punishment for perceived insults by the community.”
Sara Salama, a legal advisor with Coptic Orphans, also is critical of the law. In an August interview with the Washington Times, she said, “This law, meant to make the process for licensing churches easier for the Copts, has actually resulted in more sectarian violence and closure of more churches than before.”
Last December, Rep. J. French Hill (R-AR) introduced H. Res. 673, which calls on the government of Egypt to enact serious reforms to ensure that Coptic Christians are given the same rights and opportunities as other Egyptian citizens, and to also end the culture of impunity for attacks on Christians. 21Wilberforce has joined Coptic Solidarity, a U.S.-based public charity and advocacy organization, and other like-minded groups in asking Congress to adopt H. Res. 673, thereby encouraging Egypt’s adoption of a true open-door policy.