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Egypt: Christians welcome new draft constitution

13 December 2013


Backer: the leader of the al-Nur party, Younes Makhyoun, at a  news conference

Backer: the leader of the al-Nur party, Younes Makhyoun, at a  news conference

CHRISTIANS in Egypt say that they are satisfied with the new draft constitution that will be put to a referendum in mid-January. It will replace the one drawn up in 2012 during the rule of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. This was strongly criticised by both Christians and secularists for focusing too much on Islamic values, and failing to recognise the rights of the population at large.

The 2012 constitution was drafted by a body that consisted mainly of Islamists, while the latest draft is the work of a 50-person committee without Muslim Brotherhood representation, although members of the Salafist al-Nur party were included.

The President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, was a forthright critic of the 2012 document, describing it as exclusive rather than inclusive in seeking to Islamise Egypt and restrict freedoms. In contrast, he is full of praise for the new draft: "I must say, it is a very good one, and I will be voting in favour of it. It has 244 articles. . . all of them are acceptable."

Bishop Anis said that he was pleased to see that the new constitution "affirms the right of citizenship, and makes it clear that there must be no discrimination whatsoever between citizens". The draft goes on to say that the state "guarantees the achievement of equality between women and men in all civil, economic, social, and cultural rights".

Another significant improvement, in Bishop Anis's view, can be found in the articles governing legislation. Although the new draft states that the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source for legislation, "it mentions for the first time that Christians and Jews should follow their own canon law in matters of civil status, religious affairs, and the choice of leaders."

Bishop Anis is also pleased that the latest document affirms the independent status of the judicial system, and freedom of speech.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the new constitution, the Islamic establishment in Egypt and the al-Nur party are backing it. The Grand Mufti, Dr Shawqi Allam, said that the articles reflected the views of people from all works of life, and none could be interpreted as out of step with sharia.

To the fury of the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading figure in al-Nur has said that his party is supporting the document, because it is by elections rather than street protests that legitimacy will be restored and a true democratic process established.

Although there appears to be broad support for the new document among secular and liberal Egyptians, many have been dismayed to find that the part played by the military is largely unchanged.

One of the main aims of the young people at the forefront of the revolution that toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime was to make the immensely powerful military establishment more accountable. But the new constitution states that the military budget will remain beyond public scrutiny, and that military courts will still have the right to try civilians. In other words, no matter what party comes to power next year, nor who is chosen as President, Egyptian generals will remain in the wings of the political stage.

Furthermore, while Egyptian Christians may be pleased with what the new constitution promises for their future, their immediate concerns still focus on security issues. The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, testified on Tuesday - International Human Rights Day - at a congressional hearing in Washington on "Human-rights abuses in Egypt".

He and four other witnesses highlighted the severity of human-rights abuses endured by Christians and minority groups both before and after the 2011 revolution.

Pope Francis, during a mass in the Vatican celebrated with Coptic Patriarch Ibrahim of Alexandria, voiced support for Christians in Egypt. "We feel", he said in his homily, "that the encouragement for 'the faint of heart' is directed to so many in your beloved land of Egypt who are experiencing insecurity and violence, sometimes because of their Christian faith."

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