The Administrative Court of Alexandria has blocked the demolition of a church belonging to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, in the process issuing a ruling that prohibits the demolition of any church in Egypt.
The move has been welcomed by members of the Coptic Christian community, who claim that Egyptian churches have been subject to "violations" for many years.
The court blocked the continued demolition of the Virgin Mary church in Rashid, Beheira Governorate, which was on land subject to an ongoing legal dispute involving the Greek and Coptic Orthodox Churches. The Virgin Mary church has been partly demolished already, but further domolition was halted while the legal dispute was settled.
In its ruling, the court confirmed a set of legal principles relating to churches, including a ban on demolition or converting their premises to other uses, as well as selling a church property in the knowledge that it would be demolished.
The court said that selling the property on which the Virgin Mary church stands with a view to demolition "conflicts with public order and the Supreme Constitutional Court, which equates the mosque and the church as houses of worship.”
In reaching its verdict in the complex case, the court allowed the intervention of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Anba Pachomius, the Bishop of Matrouh Lake, a first in such a case. The court also heard testimony from representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Rashid.
In seeking to settle the dispute, the court sought the advice of Al-Azhar, since Islamic Sharia is the main source of Egyptian law, according to the 2014 Constitution. Al-Azhar responded by ruling that the demolition was illegal, saying that non-Muslims living in a country with a Muslim majority have the right to protect their religious institutions and places of prayer, in accordance with Islamic Sharia.
The dispute started when the head of the Criminal Court of Alexandria, Mohamed Mostafa Tiranah, stated that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Rashid had sold him a piece of land in 1990, including 14 shops and a church.
The Coptic Orthodox Church intervened to stop the demolition of all the properties on the land, including the church, filing a legal case.
In doing so, the Coptic Orthodox Church said that the Greek Orthodox Church did not have the right to demolish any of its churches without permission from the Copts, citing an agreement between Pope Shenouda III and the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox, to the effect that all churches in Egypt are to be used jointly by both followers of both denominations.
The court finally ruled this week, stating that further demolition was prohibited. However, between 2009 and 2013, Tiranah had demolished parts of the church, including its fence.
The ruling has been praised by members of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, who view it as a landmark case that could protect other churches from harm.
“The decision is considered a first in the history of Copts in Egypt after years of violations against churches,” Fady Youssef, the founder of the Coalition of Coptic Egypt, told Egypt Independent.
However, Youssef says the decision has come late, since some parts of the church are already in ruins. He says the damage done to the historic building is “unforgivable”. He urged the government to take quick action to repair the damage.
“Churches should be considered sacred, but unfortunately there are many infringements against churches in Egypt, especially the historic ones," Youssef said. "The government is usually slow in restoring churches, which inhibits the freedom to worship, which is supposed to be guaranteed in the Egyptian constitution."