09/05/2016, 14.49
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For spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, law on places of worship modernises the country

Fr Rafic Greiche judges positively the law recently approved by the Parliament, following negotiations between the government and Christian leaders. Now there are fewer "constraints and restrictions" than in the past. The important thing is that it is “implemented the way it is written". Economy and social justice remain important problems.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Despite " criticism from several fronts," it is a "good law", which makes it possible to "modernise the country", and goes far beyond previous rules "that dated from the Ottoman period, that were old and hindering freedom of worship of Christians,” said Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church, as he spoke to AsiaNews about the new law on church construction, recently approved by the Egyptian Parliament in Cairo.

"In the past, there were many more constraints and restrictions,” the clergyman explained. “There were many more problems to build a place of worship that have now been overcome.”

On 30 August, the Egyptian Parliament passed the bill on church construction, after long negotiations between main Christian religious leaders and the Egyptian government.

The process was long and full of difficulties, but had a positive outcome thanks to the effort of the government and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. 

The new law requires provincial authorities to respond within four months to any request to build a Christian place of worship.

The governor must explain its reasons for opposition, against which the local community can appeal to the administrative court.

Still, doubts remain, and in recent weeks, some Christian denominations – particularly the Coptic Orthodox Church – have opposed the new law.

One issue is the surface of the church, which must reflect the size of the congregation, something that is too vague and subject to manipulation.

Another is that places of worship are authorised by provincial leaders "in coordination with concerned authorities,” something that could unjustifiably stop construction, according the law’s critics.

However, for Fr Rafic Greiche, the law is modern, the outcome of joint work by Orthodox Copts, Catholics and Protestants, who were even able to overcome "moments of tension."

In Egypt, where Christians make up about 10 per cent of the population, there is still "the mindset that all the earth is Islamic. With this excuse, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in the villages, attack Christians and burn churches."

Still, the spokesman for the Catholic Church does not hide the fact that the path leading to the approval of the law was full of problems and difficulties.

Some of the obstacles came from Coptic Orthodox which, he noted, " over the past four years, has built at least 2,000 illegal places of worship, without a permit.”

This was one of the controversial points in drafting the new law. However, President al Sisi himself "intervened to approve the amnesty on already built churches, even illegal ones, as long as they were active for at least one year."

Fr Greiche said that "15 bills were drafted in eight months", confirming the intense nature of the negotiations and the tug-of-war that led to the drafting and approval of the final text, which is still criticised by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

"However, we Catholics are satisfied,” the priest said. “A law is not a revelation from God but man-made work. It cannot be perfect and may vary depending on the context and the environment. However, it is a big step towards modernisation."

Finally, the Catholic leader said that "the implementation of the law itself is more important that the fact that the law was approved. It must be implemented the way it is written.”

In relation to the issue of religious freedom and respect for the Christian minority in the country, the situation is positive although there are critical areas, especially in Upper Egypt and in some remote villages.

For Fr Greiche, "The main problem remains the economy with a high dollar and very high inflation.”

“In this context the poor pay for the crisis and difficulties, whilst the ever present – and unresolved - issue of social justice remains. The government has initiated major projects, but it takes time for the benefits to get to the lower layers of the population."

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