Egypt and church construction: Easing restrictions and remaining challenges

September 30, 2016

A few weeks ago, the Egyptian parliament finally passed a long-awaited bill to reform restrictions on the construction of churches. During the era of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, building a new church in Egypt required a permit from the president himself.

Similar restrictions against the construction of churches exist across the Middle East. Will this development in Egypt usher in a new era of religious liberty, pluralism and the legalization of churches in the region? Probably not. Egypt’s new law is far from perfect and does not meet the promises made when Egypt’s new constitution was approved in January 2014.

However, the law does provide an interesting model that Western governments and religious freedom advocates can point to in encouraging other countries to ease their own restrictions on church construction. Egypt has long played an important leadership role in the Middle East, both politically and theologically.

An imperfect model

So, do Christians in Egypt now have the right to construct churches? It’s possible, but we will have to wait to see how the law is actually implemented. Let’s start by answering the question of what true freedom would look like: At a minimum, this would mean that the construction of a new church would be held to the same standard as a new mosque. This would mean, primarily, compliance with building codes and zoning codes.

If this is the standard, Egypt’s new law falls far short. We should join our voices with those of our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt who are demanding that the law be revised to meet this standard. Indeed, Ishak Ibrahim, the freedom of religion and belief officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said, “The state’s role should be limited to respecting and promoting the right to build, to ensure freedom of worship.”

Let us examine a few of the more problematic elements of the law:

  1. Church construction requirements are in a different legal code than mosque construction requirements. This was mentioned briefly above, but it warrants calling out specifically because the fact that houses of worship are regulated differently sends a cultural message that houses of worship are not the same: mosques and churches are understood by the law to be different things.
  2. The size of the new church must be “proportional” to the number of Christians in the area. There is no standard for the appropriate “proportion,” and Christians in Egypt have long complained that they are underrepresented in the Egyptian census records. Further, the law does not define who the decisionmaker is.
  3. Many house churches, because they are located in rural areas, are not able to meet the building standards. This means that these house churches will not be considered legal churches under the new system, a major problem for Christian populations isolated in rural areas.
  4. The role of the Egyptian security services in approving church construction remains unclear. Ostensibly, the new law eliminates the role of the Egyptian security services, known within Egypt as the “deep state,” in approving church construction. Little is known about Egypt’s security services, the criteria used to approve church construction or the process by which such decisions were made. Most observers argue that the deep state was—and is—primarily concerned with minimizing sectarian violence between the Islamist and Christian communities. Especially in rural areas, Islamist populations often strongly resist the construction of new churches. Ibrahim went on to say that the new law “gives the security apparatus a say in the granting of permits and allows it to monitor activities and any modifications to religious buildings.”
  5. The process by which the new bill was passed was hardly democratic. The new law was negotiated in secret among a limited number of the stakeholders involved. Public debate on the text of the bill was intentionally limited, and the bill was then passed three days after the text of the law was released.

Will other majority-Muslim countries loosen their church construction requirements?

A few weeks ago, I was in Berlin at the second gathering of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion and Belief. At the conference, the question of houses of non-Muslim worship in majority-Muslim countries was debated at length. And one of the main responses on social media from countries like the Maldives—which has no churches—was, “when Vatican City builds a mosque, we will consider building a church.”

Vatican City has a population of 451, all of whom are Roman Catholic. This makes the comparison to, say, Saudi Arabia, which has an estimated 1.5 million Christians but not a single church, entirely unfair. And this of course glosses over the larger questions of apostasy laws. Most of the Christians in Saudi Arabia are foreign laborers granted work visas within the country. Allowing freedom of worship for foreigners is one question; allowing freedom of worship for converts to Christianity from Islam an entirely another question. The latter are considered apostates, a “crime” punishable by death in 13 countries in the world today, all of which are majority-Muslim.

We can look to the Marrakesh Declaration for hope that at least some actors within the Muslim world are seeking to construct a definition of equal citizenship based on Islamic principles. But we also need to remember that at least 10 percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, and that population has lived in Egypt since the first century. Most Christian populations around the Middle East are tiny minorities with little political power.

As such, no political movement will be automatic: It will come through indigenous efforts supported by international pressure and diplomacy.

Moving forward in Egypt

Looking forward, there are several things to look for within Egypt. First, of course, we should look for statistics of new church construction, especially in rural areas of Egypt where new churches are often met with pushback. These kinds of situations are usually underreported because the Christian community fears violent retribution if they speak to the press or to the international community.

Second, we should look at the way that mob violence that often attends rumors of new churches is handled by the Egyptian authorities. For instance, in July of this year, an angry mob in a village near Alexandria attacked the home of a man suspected by the community of seeking to host a church in his house. During the attack, two homes were destroyed and another 10 houses were looted. And in 2013, over 100 churches were destroyed in the aftermath of the coup that ousted then-President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s first leader from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood blamed the Christian community for supporting the coup. About two-thirds of those churches have now been repaired, many by the Egyptian army at the direction of current President al-Sisi.

Whether this new law was actually a step forward for Egyptian Christians remains to be seen. Let us join them in prayer as they seek to worship the Lord in truth and with freedom.

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24