Barnabas Edit: Egypt – Freedom for Christians under new constitution?

December 9, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world


Scores of churches were torched by Morsi supporters after his ouster

Scores of churches were torched by Morsi supporters after his ouster

Egypt, December 05, 2013: The much-anticipated draft of the new Egyptian constitution has been unveiled, revealing a decisive move away from the previous Islamist-sponsored code and granting remarkable rights to Christians.

A 50-member committee was appointed in September to review the controversial 2012 constitution, which was suspended following the removal of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July. His Islamist allies had pushed through that code, which threatened basic rights and freedoms and laid the foundations for Egypt to become an Islamic state, against the opposition of liberals and Christians.

On Sunday (1 December), the committee approved the new draft after weeks of thrashing out the details. It has had the impossible task of trying to reconcile the demands of the staunch secularists on the one hand and the ultra-conservative Islamists on the other.

This time round, the secularists have held sway, and the voices of Christians have been heard. The revolution of January 2011 was initially driven by people’s calls for democracy and freedom, but in the Islamist takeover that ensued, these rights were denied. So the masses took to the streets again, overthrowing Morsi in a second revolution in June-July 2013. The new constitution is much more in line with the values that inspired both uprisings.

Crucially, the preamble states that the charter “continues to build a democratic, modern country with a civilian government”. The word “civilian” in Arabic indicates non-religious and non-military, and hence was opposed by the handful of Islamists on the committee, who consider it akin to “secularist”.

Further to this, political activity or the establishment of political parties based on religion is prohibited. This effectively outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Al-Nour, the ultraconservative Salafist party, in their current form.

While the new draft retains Article 2, which says that the “principles” of Islamic law are the basis for legislation, this should not be a great cause of concern as this clause has been in every Egyptian constitution since the 1970s and does not mean the detailed application of sharia law. Importantly, it omits the more precise definition of “principles” introduced by Morsi that paved the way for an Islamic state and also omits the role given to Al-Azhar University, the country’s main Islamic institution, in overseeing legislation.

FREEDOM OF BELIEF “ABSOLUTE”

In one of the most remarkable changes, the new draft says that freedom of belief is “absolute”, rather than “preserved” as previously stated.

Freedom to practise religion and establish places of worship is granted to followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and while it would have been better to extend this to all, as some were advocating, it is nevertheless a big step in the right direction.

 

The draft charter will give Egyptian Christians hope for their future in the country

The draft charter will give Egyptian Christians hope for their future in the country

One of the practical outworkings of this clause is a move towards lifting the restrictions on churchbuildings. It has been notoriously difficult for Christians to build or even renovate churchbuildings in Egypt; they have been required to obtain presidential permission in order to do so, and this has invariably been a protracted and often fruitless process. As a result, Egyptian Christians do not have enough buildings in which to meet; the Coptic Orthodox Church, the country’s largest denomination, has building space for only around 20% of its adherents.

But the new constitution includes an article that requires the new parliament to “in its first session… issue a law aimed at regulating the construction and restoration of churches in a way that ensures that Christians perform their religious rites freely”.

This clause was actually proposed by several Muslim members of the committee. One of them, Abul-Ghar, said:

With a view to the fact that several churches suffered from destruction after former Islamist president Mohammad Morsi was ousted from office, [we] proposed this article to ensure that Christians, who form the largest minority in Egypt, become able to exercise their rites freely and become able to build their churches in a much easier way.

This was a very courageous move by these Muslim leaders given the hostility unleashed by Muslim Brotherhood supporters against Christians, whom they blame for the removal of Morsi. Scores of churches and other Christian buildings were destroyed on 14 August in the worst single day of violence against the Egyptian Church since the 14th century. The show of solidarity with Christians by prominent Muslims on the Constitution committee undermines the Brotherhood’s destructive campaign and demonstrates that the Islamists do not represent all Muslims in Egypt.

The full extent of the freedom of Muslims, Christians and Jews to practise religion is not yet clear. For true religious freedom to exist, they must not only be allowed to construct places of worship but also be allowed to share their faith with others and change their religion without negative consequences.

There has not been equality for Egyptian Christians in this regard. For example, if a Muslim converts to Christianity, it has not been possible for them to change the religion listed on their identity cards. This causes problems for them in matters including marriage, inheritance and even church attendance. But if a Christian converts to Islam, their ID card is promptly changed.

RIGHTING WRONGS

The new draft includes further attempts to right wrongs against Christians and others. “Forced displacement” is banned. This has often been imposed on Christian communities following an outbreak of violence against them, effectively punishing them when they have actually been the victims.

Quotas will be set in parliament and local government for Christians, women and people with disabilities, offering “proper representation” to disadvantaged groups.

Women are granted equality with men, and there is a clause that obligates the state to provide protection for women against “any form of violence”. Since the first revolution in 2011, there has been a marked rise in the number of cases of rape and sexual assault against women, which has been a national disgrace.

The new constitution is not perfect. Some clauses have been criticised for preserving some of the military’s wide-ranging powers and granting too much power to the interim government. But the document is a major improvement on Morsi’s Islamist code, offering the basis for greater freedom and justice in Egyptian society. It will give the country’s beleaguered Christians hope that they do have a future in the country. Needless to say, it has been rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The draft will be put to the public in a referendum either this month or next. Let’s pray that there is a strong show of support for the new charter, giving the next parliament a mandate for real change.

– dr. patrick sookhdeo

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