Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Heliopolios.jpg
Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Heliopolios.
Photograph: Photo by Andrew A. Shenouda, used under CC BY

The Egyptian Parliament approved a law Tuesday to regulate the building of churches, in a move intended to address long-standing grievances of the country's Christian minority.

The vote took place in a "celebratory atmosphere," state-run newspaper al-Ahram reported, with deputies chanting: "Long live the cross with the crescent."

Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Al telephoned Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt's dominant Coptic Orthodox Church, to congratulate him on the passage of the law, according to the official Facebook page of the church's spokesman.

According to the text of the law published by al-Ahram, provincial governors will have to respond to any requests for the building of churches within four months and provide their reasoning if they refuse a request.

Churches operating without a license when the law goes into effect are due to have their status retrospectively resolved under its provisions.

Egypt's Christians, who mostly belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church and are thought to make up about 10 per cent of the population, have long complained of difficulties in getting official permission to build churches.

Officials have reportedly delayed or ignored requests for building permits, in some cases apparently in fear of angry reactions from local Muslims.

Attempts to build churches in rural areas of southern Egypt where much of the Christian minority live have on several occasions led to violent sectarian clashes.

Many villages in southern Egypt have no churches, forcing local Christians to travel elsewhere to attend mass or hold services in unlicensed buildings, which can also lead to local tensions.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who as army chief deposed Islamist elected president Mohammed Morsi in 2013, has courted the Christian minority to an extent unseen in decades, visiting the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo at Christmas.

Al-Sissi, whose administration has cracked down on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular dissidents, has called for a renewal of Islamic discourse to emphasize religious tolerance.

A revised constitution adopted in 2014 required parliament to establish a law on the building of churches.

The law was reportedly delayed after church officials objected to provisions in a previous draft giving a formal role to security officials in approving church building requests.

The Coptic Orthodox Church's main decision-making body, the Holy Synod, approved the final draft, which was submitted to parliament by the cabinet and approved without amendment.

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