Church Construction and the Dhimma Pact: the Case of the Diocese of Maghagha and Edwah

Church Construction and the Dhimma Pact: the Case of the Diocese of Maghagha and Edwah

A post by Mary Abdelmasih reports that Bishop Agathon, 75 clergy and nearly 150,000 Copts from the Diocese of Maghagha and Edwah have staged a sit-in in Maghagha since last Sunday (25 July 2010) protesting against obstructions to church building works.  (Maghagha is 180 km south of Cairo.)

The crux of the issue is that Governor of Minya, Ahmad Dia-Eldin has suspended a license to build a church building in the Diocesan complex.  This was only after the church, acting in good faith, had pulled down the old structure to make way for the new building.  The bishop and his flock are holding services in a makeshift tent in temperatures exceeding 45C (113F): they report that stones are being hurled into the tent by Muslims.

This story reminded me of the fate of a protestant Church near Simpang Lima in Banda Aceh.  Dating back to the first half of the 20th century, this old wooden building was burned down around 1990.  After this the congregation sought permission to rebuild. However securing a building permit proved very difficult in Islamic Aceh.  The last time I visited, in the early 1990’s, the congregation was meeting in much reduced circumstances in a garage.

Another incident, which took place some ten years later was an agreement, signed by Christians in South Aceh, to destroy some of their own places of worship. The remaining small places of Christian worship were permitted ‘as a sign of Islamic tolerance’.  This whole arrangement was established, according to the wording of the agreement, ‘with all sincerity and a sense of brotherhood to create an atmosphere of living in harmony between the religious communities.’ (The agreement is documented in The Myth of Islamic Tolerance, pp.268-9).

All over the world, in sharia-compliant societies, Christians have great difficulty getting permits to build churches, and can face violent reprisals if they are considered to have built one without a permit.  In Egypt a new church building requires presidential approval, and this is not easily secured.  In Saudi Arabia, despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Christians, who are foreign workers, no place of Christian worship is permitted to exist.

The root of all this intolerance and hostility is the dhimma pact, an institution of sharia law which determines the conditions under which Christian worship is tolerated in lands conquered by Islam.  The very first of the dhimma’s conditions, as listed in the famous Pact of Umar, is an agreement by conquered Christians that “we made a condition on ourselves that we will neither erect in our areas … a church, … nor restore any place of worship that needs restoration”.  This ancient restriction continues to exert a depressing influence on the lives of Christians who are exposed to sharia conditions.

In Egypt today, both official legislation and the sentiments of the Muslim street work in unison to imposing this dhimmi restriction upon the Copts, that they must never, except with great difficulty, and at great cost, build or renovate a church. This is both a top-down, as well as a bottom-up restriction: legislation and officialdom enforce it, and local Muslims expect it.

The contrast with the freedoms enjoyed by Muslims in Western nations, where mosques have been springing up in their thousands, and only rarely opposed, must count as one of the great human rights ironies of our times.

It is time for this gross lack of reciprocity between religions to come to an end.  Let all Christians who enter into religious dialogue with Muslims request, as one of the primary points of their conversation, that the conditions of the dhimma pact be renounced by the Muslims, its grim historical legacy be acknowledged and repented of, and that both parties commit to work together to establish principles of reciprocity and equality between religions without which harmony cannot be achieved.

As a practical starting point, I call upon Christians who live in the West and are engaged in dialogue with Muslims, to invite their dialogue partners to make a public statement denouncing the restrictions on building and renovating churches in Egypt, and requesting that Christians be as free to build churches in Muslim-majority lands as Muslims are to establish mosques in Rome, London or Sydney.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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