Extremism, Christian symbols and churches in Egypt

Christian activists in Egypt are calling for the reexamination of the 2015 law for the “Rebuilding and Restoring of Egypt’s Churches.” Although the law, which provides clear regulations and guidelines towards the rebuilding, maintenance and funding of Egyptian churches, was initially welcomed by Egypt’s Christian community, the omission of unlicensed and unofficial church buildings from the law has since been a source of contention.

The issue of unofficial and unlicensed churches is a matter that ties deeply to the difficulties that Christians in Egypt experience as a whole. Prior to the 2015 law, the maintenance and expansion of existing churches and the construction of new churches required community leaders to undergo a labyrinthine bureaucratic process that could take years and could be easily rejected by the authorities. This left existing churches at a state of disrepair or simply too small and led to the proliferation of unofficial and unlicensed churches. In addition to such churches not being protected by the law, they were also frequent targets of extremists as well as angry mobs who were often incited by extremists through conspiracy theories.

Such attacks became particularly common between 2012 and 2013, leading to a perception among some Egyptians that former President Mohammed Morsi was soft on extremism. The 2015 law was, in a sense, an effort by the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to set a clear break from its predecessor.

The failure to address the status of the unofficial and unlicensed churches, in conjunction with the continued attacks by extremists on Churches and the Christian community as a whole has thus tarnished al-Sisi’s efforts to present himself as a defender of minorities. Although large-scale attacks on Churches have stopped since the Palm Sunday attack some nine months ago, sporadic inter-communal violence continues to plague Upper (Southern) Egypt in particular.

Christian activists looking to amend the law have been joined by a number of Muslim activists who believe that the protection of the right to worship of non-Muslims is a vital duty for Muslims on the whole. They are not only pushing for increased protections for the Christian community in Egypt but also trying to change perceptions within their own communities to rob the extremists of their power.