Problems on hold. Reinstituting legality

Youssef Sidhom 

Last December I had met Mustafa al-Fiqi, who heads the foreign relations committee of the People’s Assembly, several times. The meetings came within the framework of a group effort to condense a vision of the then aspired Constitutional amendments and, by mere coincidence, followed a Watani editorial printed on 17 December.

The editorial tackled the problems undergone by those in charge of a fourth century monastery who were required by the authorities to come up with the ownership documents of the monastery, forgetting that it had stood there before the institution of relatively modern official deeds.

The topic was brought to the attention of the convening group, and most of the attendants were of the opinion that such difficult situations were engineered by junior officials in the government or security apparatus, contrary to the normally reasonable regulations and to the orders of senior officials who usually attempted to facilitate matters.

It was thus of utmost importance, the group agreed, that senior officials should have a system in place through which they could ensure that regulations and orders would be precisely executed, and not tampered with to impede rather than facilitate matters.

Today I go back to the topic of Christian facilities—churches, monasteries, and affiliated buildings—the problems connected to which form a heavy legacy of utterly complicated troubles.

Many of these facilities fall among one of two categories: They are either too old to possess any official documents or licences, or they were built during the period when authorities issued permits only so scarcely that people frequently found themselves obliged—out of pressing need—to go ahead and build clandestinely, without licence.

Such buildings are treated as illegitimate children; authorities allow them to be used to host the services and activities they were originally built to house, even guarding and protecting them. But once those in charge of these buildings submit applications for necessary restoration, renovation, or expansion, authorities refuse to grant them permits unless the original—conspicuously absent—building permit is produced.


Which brings me back to Dr Fiqi who took a special interest in this file. Dr Fiqi insisted that the legitimacy of these buildings should be reinstituted. Many of them are already on the official survey maps and the boundaries of their lands officially registered, and many others are built on land with authentic ownership documents.


 Given that all these buildings are well known to the security apparatus which accordingly assigns them regular guards, how can these facilities be suddenly considered illegal once the people in charge of them apply for any permit? In his capacity as a rights activist who calls for non-discrimination on religious grounds, an MP who heads a substantial parliamentary committee, and a member of the National Council for Human Rights upon which hopes rest for the materialisation of rights into laws, Dr Fiqi is in a position where he can indeed promote this case.


Reinstituting the legality of these buildings is the only way out of this quagmire of problems. Neither supportive presidential decrees, which have been frequently executed in a counterproductive manner by security or junior officials, nor the much-hoped-for unified law for places of worship, which is concerned with licensed buildings, will solve the matter.


As for the problem which brought on this discussion in the first place, and which is typical to so many monasteries and churches in Egypt, it concerns the monastery of Anba Balamoun al-Sayeh (St Balamoun the Hermit) in Nag Hamadi, Upper Egypt.


The fourth century monastery is a tourist and pilgrimage destination, is cited in history and church heritage texts, and has been on Egyptian survey maps since 1904. The monastery territory includes a cemetery and surrounding agricultural lands.


 In 2003, Father Shenouda, the priest of the monastery churches, submitted an application to Nag Hamadi authorities for a permit to build a guesthouse to serve the numerous visitors, and attached all the relevant documents.

It took a full three years for a response from the authorities, and then it merely required the impossible-to-produce ownership documents of the fourth century monastery as a pre-requisite to consider the application. So much for legality.

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