Presbyterian led Evangelical Church Association has intervened in a court case, attempting to block recognition of the Diocese of Egypt as a domestic Egyptian church.
The judge hearing the petition of the Diocese of Egypt in its dispute with the government over its standing as a bona fide “Egyptian” church has asked an advisory panel to investigate the history and legal precedents surrounding the issue. On 14 Dec 2016 the administrative court in Cairo told the litigants he was referring the matter to a research team before he issued his ruling. A follow hearing was held on 27 Dec 2016, but no decision was handed down.
The dispute between the government, the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, and the Egyptian Church Association (ECA) has been in the courts for several years, and revolves around the issue of whether the diocese should be considered an “approved foreign” church or an independent “domestic” church like the Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Until the 1950s the diocese primarily served the English-speaking expatriate community, but in the wake of the Suez crisis and the withdrawal of British influence in Egypt, the character of the church changed — such that its clergy and leadership have been native Egyptians for almost two generations as are almost all its members. Under the leadership of its current bishop, Dr. Mouneer Anis, the Anglican diocese has also assumed a high profile role within the Christian community and the wider Egyptian society.
Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior in recent years has classified the Anglican diocese as one of sixteen denominations within the Evangelical Church Association (ECA), an umbrella group that includes the Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian churches. The largest church in the ECA is the presbyterian Synod of the Nile, whose leaders control the ECA. The current litigation centers on the diocese’s recognition that it is an independent domestic entity. However, at court hearings this past year, the ECA has attempted to intervene in the proceedings as an interested party, and has sought to block recognition of the diocese as an independent domestic church.
The reform of Egypt’s Christian church property laws following the ascension to power of President Abdel el-Sisi had brought the dispute to a head. The ECA requires each of its member churches to submit through the ECA’s president Dr. Andrea Zaki applications to the government to build or refurbish a church — actions forbidden under the Islamist brotherhood government or severely limited under the Mubarak regime, which required new church construction to be authorized by the president’s office.
If the regional government approves the permit, a license to build would then be issued in the name of the ECA — although the denomination would be responsible for the costs of construction. Title to the property would also pass to the ECA.
In October the Bishop of Egypt, the Most Rev. Mouneer Anis, issued a call for assistance to the international Anglican community. A number of church leaders, including the Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne, wrote to the Egyptian ambassadors in their country and to their embassies in Cairo, releasing public letters of support for the diocese. Asked if they would be responding to Archbishop Anis’ plea for help, a Lambeth Palace spokesman on 28 Oct 2016 said they had no response from the Archbishop of Canterbury, but “we have been praying for the diocese in chapel here.” A follow up query to the director of communications for the Archbishop of Canterbury the next week as to whether they would be a public statement of support for Dr. Anis, was not answered. However the head of the Anglican Communion News Service responded saying they would have no further word on the issue.
Sources in Egypt told Anglican Ink the apparent indifference to the diocese’s plight exhibited by staffers was upsetting. However, at the 2-3 Nov 2016 meeting of the Council of the Wise, an inter-faith gathering in Abu Dhabi, Dr. Anis and Archbishop Welby had a private meeting on the sidelines where Canterbury pledged his assistance to Cairo. On 30 Dec 2016 the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director of Communications told Anglican Ink: “we have been working in support of ++Mouneer, using informal and formal approaches with his full knowledge and advice.”
Dr. Anis has also spoken to news outlets this past week expressing his thanks for the support of Archbishop Welby.
The dispute with the government and intervention by the ECA, however, continues to unsettle Anglican leaders in Cairo. In a statement released to the media on 1 Nov 2016 after a court hearing, Dr, Anis said: “At the hearing (earlier that day), our lawyer was very surprised to find the lawyer of the Evangelical Church Association (ECA) was also present, and was asking the judge to intervene. He asked the judge to refuse our request. The judge ignored that, and postponed the hearing of our case to 13 December, 2016.”
“During the hearing, our lawyer explained that, for many decades, the Diocese has been recognized as a foreign church. It is our request to be recognized as one of the national churches in Egypt. However, the ECA (dominated by the Presbyterians) don’t want this to happen, in order that we would be under their authority. The ECA’s request to intervene in this court case is proof enough that it is they, rather than the government, who want us to be under them,” the archbishop wrote.
Sources in the diocese report the push to subordinate the Anglican Diocese of Egypt to the presbyterian church has spread to the issue of work visas. Anglican Ink has been told the ECA has written to the Ministry of the Interior requesting the government not issue any work visas to Anglicans, unless they are submitted by the ECA.
The case continues.