Cairo (AINA) -- A controversial Fatwa (Islamic edict) prohibiting the construction of new churches in Egypt has provoked considerable discussion and spiraled into a crisis, involving the Fatwa Council, Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh, Christian and Muslim religious personalities, and the media. It was also reported on 8/26/2009 that the jurists who issued the Fatwa are under investigation on orders of the Grand Mufti and the Justice Minister.
The Fatwa (Arabic) in question was issued by the Al-Azhar affiliated "Dar el-Eftta" -- Fatwa Council for Islamic interpretations of laws in Islam. It stated "the will of a Muslim towards building a Church is a sin against God, just as if he left his inheritance towards building a nightclub, a gambling casino, or building a barn for rearing pigs, cats or dogs."
It was issued in response to an inquiry sent to the Fatwa Council by Dr. Naguib Gabraeel, President of the Egyptian Union Human Rights Organization (EUHRO), asking its opinion as to what he read in an article written by a prominent writer about what was stated in a textbook taught to third year students, Muslims and Christians, at the Faculty of Law, Cairo University, on Inheritance and execution of wills. Gabraeel's inquiry pertained specifically to a quotation from the textbook "it is forbidden for a person to donate money for what would lead to sin, such as donating in his will money towards build a church, a nightclub, a gambling casino, towards promoting the alcohol industry or for building a barn for rearing pigs, cats or dogs." He went on to inquire "So what is the Shari'a position to what was mentioned especially concerning the will of a Muslim to donate for the building of a church or a monk's cell? If the answer is prohibition, aren't these houses where the name of God is mentioned? Is not Christianity a recognized religion according to the Egyptian constitution? There are also a lot of wealthy Copts and Coptic businessmen who donate towards the building of mosques."
The Fatwa Council replied affirming the correctness of what came in the textbook and issued a Fatwa on September 10, 2008 (document number 1809), which is also published on its official website.
To highlight the reason for this "sin" the Fatwa went on to state: "Salvation in the Christian religion is the belief in Jesus as Lord, where Muslims fundamentally disagree on it. Muslims believe that Issa [Jesus in Arabic] peace be upon him, is a slave of Allah and His Messenger, and that Allah is one. He begets not and He is not begotten and there is none like unto Him. So if it is seen that one sect has deviated from this absolute Monotheism, then according to that person's own religion he is forbidden to donate for the erection of buildings where Allah is not worshiped alone."
According to Mohammed el-Maghrabbi, deputy chief of the Faculty of Law, and author of the controversial textbook, what he wrote is a principle agreed upon by all Islamic jurists. He added that a will, if devoted by a Christian for building a Church, is forbidden and sinful and is considered in Islam as separation from God. So it is also illegal if a non-Muslim wills his inheritance towards building a Church or a Synagogue.
This Fatwa has shocked many as it classified churches with nightclub, gambling casinos, and places for rearing pigs and dogs, which are considered 'unclean' animals according to Islam and Muslims.
Christians were angered and considered it a clear and explicit insult to all Christians. The renowned theologian Reverend Abdelmassih Bassit, Professor at the Coptic Orthodox Clerical Institute, called it "a shocking Fatwa."
Gabraeel called on the government and Al-Azhar to state their position clearly on the building of churches, as well as prayer meetings held in premises even if they were 'unlicensed' as churches.
On August 19, 2009, a delegation from EUHRO, headed by Dr. Gabraeel, paid a visit to Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who said that the Fatwa was wrong and untrue and that Muslims can make voluntary contributions to build churches, as a church is a house for "worshiping and tolerance" and that "Shari'a does not prevent Muslims from donating to the building of a church, as it is his free money. He also affirmed that Al-Azhar does not object to the "unified law for building places of worship."
Tantawi added that building churches should be left to the Christians and Muslims are not allowed according to Shari'a to interfere in other faiths, "because religion, faith and what a person believes in is a relationship between him and his God." He also called on the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa to hold the five jurists who issued the Fatwa accountable.
Reactions to Tantawi's statements resulted in a crisis in the Islamic circles. Most Muslim leaders criticized him publicly and supported the Fatwa "as being issued by people qualified in Islamic Shari'a law" or "a Muslim should not donate to the building of a church when Christians do not believe in the religion of Mohammed, or him being a prophet."
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa gave the excuse that he never ratified the Fatwa. Nevertheless, his answer was not convincing as it was an official Fatwa issued by the authority headed by him, stamped and signed by five of the Council's jurists. He failed to give an opinion about it.
Less than 24 hours after the EUHRO visit, Grand Sheikh Tantawi backtracked on his statements saying it was a misunderstanding on the part of the EUHRO delegation and the newspapers. He commented that what he meant was for non-Muslims to donate in their wills for church building and reaffirmed that it is forbidden for a person to donate money for the construction of "sinful" places, such as bars and nightclubs.
The reason for his change of heart, according to the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Destour, was that 'high sources' contacted the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh and the Grand Mufti to resolve the crisis raised over the Fatwa "in order to avoid any sectarian strife or an inconsistency between Al-Azhar and the Fatwa Council."
On his part EUHRO chief Dr. Gabraeel answered the Grand Sheikh saying that it is his right to change his mind but he cannot deny what he said during the visit, and that his statements were caught on the video recording of their meeting. He added that when Grand Sheikh Tantawi was asked by the delegation if a Muslim can donate from his own funds towards building a church, he answered that he is free to do so, and when asked if this was his personal opinion or the Shari'a stand on this issue, Tantawi answered that it was according to Shari'a Law. The video was sent to the media and was uploaded on all Coptic advocacy websites.
Many Christians believe that this Fatwa has exposed the true stance of the religious authorities and the government towards churches, and the reason why it refrains from passing the long awaited bill on the "unified law for building places of worship," which would put an end to all problems related to building and restoring places of worship. It is also believed that since Islam views church building as a sin, passing this bill would therefore be in conflict with Shari'a Law -- which is the main source of legislation as stipulated in the Constitution -- and this would be something that the government would avoid at all costs.
By Mary Abdelmassih