Good news about Copts and Coptic

Youssef Sidhom

Problems on Hold

Last week brought Egyptians three pieces of good news that relate to Coptic culture and issues; each represents a positive achievement in its own right. Two were actually long overdue, whereas the third concerns an ongoing issue which we in Watani are closely monitoring. First, Alexandria University and Damanhour University have each established a new department for Coptic Studies. Second, the draft for a Unified Family Law for Christians in Egypt is near-completion, and includes provisions on inheritance that stipulate equal inheritance shares for men and women. Third, the Cabinet committee charged with legalising the status of unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings in Egypt has approved the licensing of a new batch of churches and associated buildings.

It is no secret that Coptic Studies have been conspicuously absent from Egyptian universities, and that Copts and Egyptians who recognised the significance of Egypt’s Coptic history and culture have long demanded that Coptic Studies should find a place in Egypt’s institutes. Today, with Alexandria and Damanhour universities establishing Coptic Studies, this rich branch of knowledge has finally come home. Universities outside Egypt have long been teaching and researching Coptic language, history, art, monastic tradition and culture, whereas Egyptian universities had overlooked them. The reason for the disregard was painfully obvious: Coptic Studies were strongly connected to Christian identity, a fact unwelcome by fundamental Muslims who in many cases had high voices in Egyptian universities. The recent initiatives taken by Alexandria University and Damanhour University to establish Coptic Studies have given us a glimpse of hope that Egypt is on its way to healing from fundamentalist thought. Moreover, it appears fitting that the initiative should have come from Alexandria and Damanhour, given that the Coptic era began in Alexandria in the first AD century and extended for some eight centuries, spreading southwards into all Egypt; Beheira, the capital of which is Damanhour, was the first stop on the way south.

We welcome Coptic Studies in Alexandria and Damanhour universities, wishing them the very best, and bidding farewell to long years of oblivion for Coptic Studies in Egypt.

Any reader who follows my “Problems on Hold” series could not have missed how often I demanded that the new family law for Christians, currently being drafted by the major Churches in Egypt, should include legislation that would stipulate equality between men and women in inheritance. If the new law does not explicitly include such provision, inheritance in the case of Christians would be governed by Egypt’s sharia-based inheritance law which grants a man an inheritance share double that of a woman. I was thus elated last week to learn that the final draft of the Family Law for Christians in Egypt, which is near completion, includes stipulations on equal inheritance for men and women on all levels. The Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Churches of Egypt should send it to the government once it is final; the government should in turn present it to parliament. Passing the Unified Family Law for Christians would fulfil the Constitutional entitlement for Christians to be governed by legislation based on their doctrines where their family and religious affairs, and the choice of their spiritual leaders, are concerned. Today, after a long wait, a new law for Christians is set to pass, and it stipulates gender equality in inheritance. I feel especially proud to have learnt that this specific provision was included in the draft law upon unanimous approval by the three Churches; there was no bargaining or conflict about it. I cannot help hoping that a day would come when equality in inheritance shares would not only apply to Christian men and women, but would extend to all Egyptian men and women, under a modern civic Egyptian State.

The third item of last week’s good news regarding Coptic issues concerned the decision by the Prime Minister to approve legalisation of 127 unlicensed churches and Church-affiliated buildings. This is the eighth batch of unlicensed churches and associated buildings to be approved for legalisation from among 3730 that had been built without licence before the 2016 Law for Building and Restoring Churches. Prior to that law, it was near impossible for Copts to obtain licence to build or restore a church. Since it took years, if not decades on end to obtain, if ever, such licence, Copts had no option but to build unlicensed churches in view of their growing congregation and increasingly deteriorating churches.

The recent batch approved for legalisation, which is only final once local building authorities declare the building structurally sound and complying with civil defence requirements, and once the necessary dues are paid, takes the number of churches and affiliated buildings fully approved for legality up to 991. Together with 30 churches that have gained legality only conditionally until they comply with civil defence or structural requirements, the total number of churches and affiliated buildings legalised rises to 1021 out of a total 3730 that had applied for legalisation according to the 2016 law. The Cabinet, through a committee formed expressly for that purpose, started looking into the applications in September 2017, meaning that it has taken 22 months to complete 27 per cent of the task. The remaining 73 per cent, constituting 2709 cases, still wait to be addressed. At this rate, the committee would require 61 months to complete its work. For a second time I borrow the Egyptian adage which entreats: Oh God who eases difficulties! [Please help!] So little over, so much lies ahead!

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