Cairo (AsiaNews) - Things are much better under President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi compared to the Mubarak regime, said Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt's Catholic Church. The recent decision to grant three churches a building permit and the greater freedom of speech seen in newspapers and television are signs of the improvement, Fr Greiche told AsiaNews.
Egypt's current law on church construction dates back to the Ottoman period. "Some permit applications to build new churches date back to the days of Mubarak, but he never granted them." Even when all the requirements were met (minimum congregation size, distance from mosques, smaller building and non-visibility), Mubarak allowed applications to pile up.
"Now the government has decided to speed up issuing permits for existing applications," Fr Greiche said. "A permit has already been granted for the construction of a church in New Cairo and two in Upper Egypt. These applications date back to 8-10 years ago. Others go back 15 years ago and have not received any answer."
The most important sign for greater freedom of religion lies in the president's decision to adopt a new law on churches and religious buildings. As part of this, the President's Office called on Church (Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) representatives to draft a more modern bill.
"The project is almost ready," Fr Greiche said. "In the new constitution there is a paragraph that requires the new parliament - which will sit after elections in March - to pass the law within a year. This means that by March 2016, we will have a law on new church construction without the current hassles."
Another positive sign is the draft bill in the area of Christian family law. "Until now, even Christians were subject to Sharia. At present, the authorities want to value the Christian marriage and recognise it civilly." All these signs show that Egypt's al-Sisi is moving towards a more modern and liberal society.
Recently, the international community criticised the Egyptian government for cracking down on some demonstrations marking the fourth anniversary of Mubarak's fall. Some 15 people died in the clashes, including some police officers.
The government blames Islamists for stirring things up in order to undermine state security. Others blame al-Sisi for restricting freedom of expression.
"You Westerners do not understand the situation," Fr Greiche said. "In Egypt, there is broad freedom of expression. Talk shows and newspapers have a wide margin to criticise the government; no one is gagged." However, "there is a problem with those demonstrations in which activists undermine the security of society and the economy."