It was just weeks ago that the number of unlicensed church buildings granted official status in Muslim-majority Egypt — under a two-year-old law removing obstacles to construction and renovation — had reached 220.
That’s even though more than 3,700 churches await official registration nearly two years after the government passed the landmark law that lifted long-standing restrictions on Christian places of worship.
But the worldwide Christian ministry Barnabas Fund reports that another 120 church buildings have been licensed, suggesting the logjam is breaking up.
The law removes the power to approve church construction and renovation permits from Egypt’s security services, transferring it to provincial governors. While the state still gives preference to the building of mosques, Christian leaders see the law as a step in the right direction.
Unlicensed church buildings have been the targets of attacks by Muslim militants. Barnabas noted church buildings across Egypt were destroyed in a wave of violence following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
“Even though President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pushed through measures to legalize existing church buildings, the approvals process has been slow,” the international Christian group said.
Barnabas observed that some churches that have been given official status or await approval still face violent local opposition.
“This can occur even when congregations have been meeting in the same building for years.”
Egyptian Christians, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, comprise about 10 percent of the country’s 90 million people.
WND reported a church building awaiting registration was the target of an attack Aug. 24 by Muslims in the village of Sultan Basha, about 150 miles south of Cairo. After police intervened to stop the mob damaging the building, the mob moved to damaging the crops of Christians.
The building was purchased by the Christian community in 2006, and Muslim villagers have even attended Christian weddings there.
“One week later, a Muslim mob attacked Christian homes in the village of Demshaw Hashem in Minya governorate, claiming that a house was being used as a church,” according to Barnabas. “The attackers ‘stole quantities of jewelry and money, destroyed household appliances and set fire to property.’ Two Christians were also stabbed in the head and face. Police subsequently detained 38 Muslims and are understood to be pursuing charges for 19 of those arrested.”
An Egyptian news website pointed out that the government has accepted the applications.
Editor-in-chief Youssef Sidhom wrote: “With the 3,730 files all complete, it stood to reason that a swift final decision could be made by the cabinet committee regarding each. The prime minister had stipulated in his official decision to form the committee that it was to convene once a month. I thus imagined that it would take a few months to see a tangible outcome of the committee’s work. I expected that every month would bring about numerous decisions to unfetter the chained churches and service buildings, imagining that the numbers of buildings legalized every month would be in line with the huge target of 3,730 cases needing legalization.
“But this was not to be.”