CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's lawmakers on Tuesday passed the country's first law spelling out the rules for building a church, a step Christians have long hoped would free up construction that was often blocked by authorities. But angry critics in the community say the law will only enshrine the restrictions.
Church building has for decades been one of the most sensitive sectarian issues in Egypt, where 10 percent of the population of 90 million are Christians but where Muslim hardliners sharply oppose anything they see as undermining what they call the country's "Islamic character."
Local authorities often refuse to give building permits for new churches, fearing protests by Muslim ultraconservatives. Faced with refusals, Christians turned to building illegally or setting up churches in other buildings, which in many cases prompted riots and attacks by ultraconservatives. In contrast, building a mosque faces few restrictions.
Christians had hoped that the law would enshrine broad rights to build, encouraged by promises from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The Christian minority has been among el-Sissi's staunchest supporters ever since, as army chief, he led the military's ouster Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and launched a heavy crackdown on Morsi's supporters.
But the law left critics, including some Christian lawmakers, embittered, warning that it will maintain Christian's second-class status. The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which most Egyptian Christians belong, had at first opposed the bill but later backed it — and critics say it bent to heavy government pressure.
Under the law passed Tuesday, Christians must apply to the local provincial governor when they want to build a church.
The law stipulates that the size of the church must be "appropriate" to the number of Christians in the area. According to an official supplement to the law, the governor should also take into account "the preservation of security and public order" when considering the application.
The law "empowers the majority to decide whether the minority has the right to hold their religious practices," said Ishaq Ibrahim, a top researcher in the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The law passed with support of two-thirds of the 596 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, according to Egypt's state agency. Though many of the body's 36 Christian members had previously spoken out against it, in the end they largely voted in favor.
One Christian lawmaker, Nadia Henary, said the law is flawed and still allows constraints on churches. "But we have to respect the opinion of the majority," she said. "I am a daughter of the Church and I respect the priests and the Church leadership."
Father Sergius, a top official in the Coptic Church, praised the law as "historic," saying, "The church and the government reached a reconciliatory agreement. Thank God we have this law now."
Father Abdel-Masseh Basit, head of the Church's Bible Studies Center, said the law was a grudging compromise. "We are no longer talking about a constitutional right but about negotiations," he said. "The church couldn't reject the law because it will put the state in a bad spot."
He said the law means church-building will now depend on the flexibility of each governor. "In the cities, the governors are already flexible but in southern Egypt and in the villages, it is a different story." There, governors are more vulnerable to demands by Salafis, the ultraconservative Muslim movement, parts of which back el-Sissi.
The law passed with support of two-thirds of the lawmakers, according to Egypt's state agency. Eleven members of the Salafi Nour Party boycotted the vote, saying the law gives Christians too much freedom to build and will anger Muslims.
"May God protect us from the backlash in the streets," said Mohammed Ubaidi, a Nour lawmaker.
Christian activist and researcher Nader Shukry said the security and order provisions connected to the law still mean authorities can still use threats of mob violence as an excuse to ban church construction.
"What if Salafis protest against the construction of a church, would this prompt the governor to turn down the request, for fear of national security?" he said.
He and other activists also warned that authorities can also limit churches by citing the article that restricts the size of churches according to the size of the local Christian community, because there are no official statistics on the Christian population.
The government has never released an official figure for the Christian population, viewing the statistic as a sensitive national security matter. Activists believe the government doesn't want to show how large the community actually is.
Youssef Sedhom, the chief editor of the Coptic weekly Watani, wrote Sunday that the law shows the state wants to continue to have "full mandate and monopoly" over the Copts and their churches. The provisions are "vague" and empower local authorities to say "yes, this is allowed" or "no, this is not allowed," he wrote.
The law does allow churches built without permits in the past to be recognized, if the construction meets regulations and if religious rites have been held there over the past five years.
But critics say that many such churches were shut down by force, so no rites were held, while others were not built according to specifications since they were hastily converted from residential buildings.
Among critics, the law fueled a sense of betrayal by el-Sissi and anger at the Coptic Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, because the bill was worked out in direct negotiations between the Church and government behind closed doors.
Christians saw the law as a reward for their staunch support for el-Sissi. On Aug. 14, 2013, security forces broke up two giant protest camps by Morsi supporters, killing hundreds. In retaliation, Islamists attacked nearly 70 churches and priests' houses around the country.
"We choose to remain silent that day (Aug. 14) knowing that this is not the time to speak. Now, we feel this has gone in vain," Tadros Kaldas, a Christian lawmaker, told The Associated Press. He blamed the law on authorities "fear of (Muslim) ultraconservatives."
The Coptic Church's position on the law has fluctuated. On Aug 18, it rejected the draft bill, calling it "dangerous to national unity."
But days later, Tawadros met with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail. The pope then met with the Church's Sacred Congregation, a body of 105 top officials, bishops and heads of monasteries. The congregation then issued a statement accepting the bill.
"The government has killed the dream," said Emad Gad, a Christian lawmaker. The state is telling Christians, "You aren't going to be full citizens in a state that strips away the national identity and puts a Salafi one on in its place."