Relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt are unique in the region. Sectarian divides along geographic and political (save Islamist groups) lines do not exist the way they do in some neighboring countries. And yet there remains the riddle of deep institutional and societal challenges—and sectarian violence.
By the end of this year, an Egyptian parliament will convene for the first time in more than two years. Among the transitional provisions of the 2014 constitution is Article 235, which states that the new House of Representatives is tasked with “issuing a law to regulate constructing and renovating churches, in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians.”
The construction, renovation, and maintenance of churches in Egypt have faced serious constraints for a long time, chiefly because the establishment of a new church requires a decree from the president, a legacy of Egypt’s Ottoman era. Legislative reform regarding the construction of places of worship would be a positive step and a sign of progress in the way the Egyptian state deals with its Christian minority. The past five years however, have demonstrated that the country continues to face interreligious concerns, both institutional and societal, that eclipse the easing of restrictions for Christian places of worship.
One of the most recent decrees permitting the building of a church was issued by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi last February in the aftermath of the murder of Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, a gesture meant to honor the loss of the village. Of the twenty-one victims, thirteen hailed from the village of El-Aour in Minya. On March 27, shortly after construction had started, a group of Muslim residents protested against the establishment of a church in the village. That night, a group of unknown assailants attacked the construction site and nearby Christian-owned properties.
Following the attack, a reconciliation meeting, overseen by the governor of Minya, was held between representatives from the village’s Muslim and Christian communities. A decision to change the location of the church was reached.
That same month in the village of El-Galaa, construction of another church was delayed by attacks, even though Christian residents “accepted most of the conditions imposed by the Muslim side during several customary reconciliation sessions held under the aegis of the security apparatus,” according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
“Reconciliation” meetings are customary when dealing with such incidents in Egypt. They are usually supervised by the security apparatus and function outside of any existing laws. EIPR documented forty-five cases in an extensive report, characterizing such practices as ones that have “evolved into a parallel judicial system.”
Many skeptics of Egypt’s sectarian issues point to the fact that Christian ministers in cabinets have become commonplace and that Muslims and Christians live “side by side.” Such assertions are true, and Egypt has avoided the sort of sectarian state policies that have seemed inevitable in countries like Lebanon. However, in some respects, Christians are dealt with as a separate community governed by different laws.
Historically, the state has had a close, if sporadically contentious, relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church. While prominent, the church’s own role in public life has fluctuated throughout Egyptian history. It has often stood as the Christian community’s representative to the state, and is still tasked by the government to determine the personal status laws of its followers.
In recent history, the church’s relations have not been stable. In 1965, President Gamal Abdel Nasser attended the opening of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Abbaseya and even allocated 100,000 Egyptian pounds to its construction. In his speech at the event, Abdel Nasser preached concepts of equal opportunity and treatment, and cultivated a close relationship with Pope Cyril VI.
Yet only fifteen years later, amid a dramatic increase in sectarian violence and a major personal rift between Pope Shenouda III and President Anwar Sadat, the latter moved to depose the pontiff and exile him to Saint Bishoy’s Monastery in Wadi El-Natroun after accusing him of attempting to establish a Coptic capital in Upper Egypt.
Such inconstancies put the Coptic Orthodox Church in a precarious position, between its primary spiritual role and the political one that it must undertake under the current state structure.
Equality can only be achieved through equal treatment. Though reforms like the one called for in Article 235 play an important role in making it easier for Christians to practice their faith, they don’t address equal treatment (there had initially been talk about a unified law for all places of worship, but this has now been ruled out). Practices like extrajudicial reconciliation meetings bolster impunity when it comes to sectarian violence and rebuff the rule of law. Diminishing the church’s role in public life is an important step in equality, but this must come at the behest of the state and the church itself, and it must be coupled with continued encouragement for Copts to participate in political life, independent of a religious institution.
Establishing the proper rule of law, and de-politicizing the church, is also the only way to stem Egypt’s rising sectarian violence. Such violence has been a constant in recent decades in Egypt. The Esshad project, which tracks such incidents, has recorded more than 280 instances since June 2013. Egyptians must be treated as individual citizens, and not as the flock of their church or, for that matter, their local mosque. An important part of that is removing religious institutions, and the baggage that comes with their political standings, from the equation when dealing with private citizens. The consideration of religious affiliation, even if not maliciously, undermines the equality called for in Egypt’s own constitution.
This past week the Samalout city council announced that construction of the church in El-Aour would begin again, this time at the new location. But even before the church has been built, it has served as a reminder that Egypt’s sectarian problems go beyond building churches.
Basil El-Dabh is a Cairo-based writer and editor. He was formerly Politics Editor at Daily News Egypt, and his work has been featured in the Middle East Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. On Twitter: @basildabh.