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Egypt passes a long-awaited church law

Egypt passes a long-awaited church lawEgyptian parliament has approved on Tuesday a long-awaited law that changes the order of giving permission for church construction, a step Christians have long hoped would free up building that was often blocked by authorities.

Church building has for decades been one of the most sensitive 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.” So Christians have long complained of discrimination in the majority-Muslim country.

Local authorities in a fear of Muslim protests often refuse to give building permits for new churches. So Christians started to build churches illegally or set up churches in other buildings, which often became subjects for riots and attacks by ultraconservatives.

The new law empowers provincial governors to approve church building and renovation permits, previously the domain of security services. In contrast, the law on mosque building, issued in 2001, is much less restrictive and only discusses issues of land ownership and building regulations.

Church officials see it as a step in the right direction but human rights activists and some Christian Members of Parliament wasn’t so pleased about the ruling.

"This is a sectarian law that shows the state prefers the adherents of one religion over another," Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told.

Some Christian activists are straggling for equal rights of worship law to govern mosques and churches.

"A unified law would show that the state protects the rights of all its citizens equally. It would send a message to extremists," said Ibrahim.

In the vote all nine representatives from the ultra-conservative Islamist Nour Party voted against the law.

"Our country is Islamic, the constitution does not say it is Christian. When the West treats mosques the way they treat churches we will say yes," said Nour MP Ahmed al-Agrawy.
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