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Egypt moves to combat violence against Christians

In the wake of sectarian clashes that killed 15, Egypt's interim government said it will draft a new law that could better protect Christians' ability to worship in peace.

By Correspondent / May 12, 2011

Egyptian Army soldiers arrest a man from his house opposite the burned Coptic Virgin Mary church, in connection with the recent attack, in the low-income Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo, on Tuesday, May 10.

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Cairo

Egypt’s interim government said Wednesday it will draft a new law to ease restrictions on building churches, potentially rectifying one of the most apparent forms of discrimination against Christians in Egypt.

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The new law would also make it illegal to protest outside places of worship, or to use religious slogans in elections. It comes in the wake of Muslim-Christian clashes Saturday that killed 15 people after an ultraconservative group of Muslims attacked churches in Imbaba, a poor district of Cairo.

The time is long overdue to give Christians equal rights in building places of worship, says Bahey el-din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. But he is reserving judgment on the measure until the details are announced.

“It is a good step forward, despite that it is too late,” he says, adding that revising the law was first proposed 39 years ago. “But you know, late is better than never. … This doesn't mean that we are sure that this will meet the essential need to secure equal rights to build and repair worship places. This will depend at the end of the day on what this proposed law will say.”

The government-controlled National Human Rights Council proposed a draft law five years ago that did not fully address the problem, he says, partly because it gave the state security apparatus final say over the decision on whether to build a church. He says he hopes the new proposal, which the government has asked a committee to draft within a month, will be better.

Under current law, Christians must seek approval from the president to build new churches or even make small renovations to existing buildings. The decision is usually left to governors, who often consult police or state security. Christians say plans to build or renovate are often delayed or denied. There are no similar restrictions for building mosques.

Government will also rebuild, reopen churches

The cabinet also said the government will rebuild churches destroyed in attacks, and reopen those shut down by authorities. At least 48 churches have been closed without explanation in past decades.

The two churches damaged in Imbaba were the latest in a string of church attacks. A bomb exploded outside a church in Alexandria on Jan. 1, and a Muslim mob burned down a church in the village of Soul, south of Cairo, in March. Days later, clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims in another poor area of Cairo, killing at least 13 people.

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