Egypt's new constitution to guarantee absolute religious freedom: Salmawy

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 28 Oct 2013

Spokesperson of 50-member constitutional committee says majority in favour of absolute religious freedom in constitution, denies article 219 back on table for discussion

Constituent Assembly spokesman Mohamed Salmawy (Photo: Reuters)

A majority of the committee tasked with amending the suspended 2012 constitution has voted to revise article 47, which guarantees the free exercise of religion for all citizens, committee media spokesperson Mohamed Salmawy said on Monday.

Article 47, which was first drafted by a ten-member technical committee in August, now reads "Freedom of belief is guaranteed. The state guarantees freedom of religious practice, and facilitates the building of places of worship for the Abrahamic traditions, as regulated by law."

According to Salmawy, the 50-member committee proposed on Sunday evening to amend the article's text to state "the state guarantees absolute freedom of religious practice."

In addition, Salmawy added, changes may be made to clarify that "freedom of religious practice is guaranteed in an absolute way, even for those who do not follow the three Abrahamic religions, and that the state facilitates the construction of places of worship for all."

Salmawy noted that most committee members agree that Islam grants absolute freedom for all religions, citing the Prophet Mohamed who said "We are not entitled to open the hearts of others to know what their beliefs are." As such, the committee argues that the new constitution must give all citizens the right to practice religion in an absolute sense.

Mohamed Abul-Ghar, chairman of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party and a committee member, told parliamentary correspondents on Sunday evening that "the new constitution will include a transitional article aimed at lifting all barriers to building churches in Egypt."

"This addition," added Abul-Ghar, "is in line with article 47's revision, which guarantees absolute rights for all citizens to build their places of worship."

Abul-Ghar asserted that "under a liberal constitution, all Egyptians, particularly Christians, must be allowed to build their own places of worship freely," lamenting the spate of church torchings across Egypt since the ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Salmawy vehemently denied that the constitutional committee has opened discussion on article 219, which was drafted in 2012 under an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly with the intention to limit the definition of Islamic Sharia.

According to Salmawy, the ten-member technical committee had already removed article 219 before submitting the draft constitution to the 50-member committee for amendment. As such, Salmawy argued, article 219 is no longer on the table, reminding correspondents that "around 40 political figures withdrew from the 2012 constituent assembly [which drafted the now-suspended 2012 constitution under amendment] after Islamists imposed article 219."

Abul-Ghar told correspondents that article 219 goes against religious freedom and aims to impose a strict code of Islam on the Egyptian society.

Committee chairman Amr Moussa told an Algerian newspaper on Sunday that "the final decision on article 219 will be left to a vote on the constitution at the end of November."

Representative from the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party Bassam El-Zarqa has argued that article 219 is necessary to restrict Shia Muslims in Egypt and ensure that Egypt remains a Sunni Muslim country.

Salmawy confirmed the Nour Party objections to removing article 219, but stated "this is merely the opinion of one member, rather than that of the majority."

Salmawy explained that all upcoming committee meetings will be "closed door," arguing that closed meetings do not mean the meetings' contents are secret.

"Closed door meetings mean that the public is aware of issues to be discussed beforehand, and then gets firsthand information about the debate in daily press conferences," Salmawy said.

A legal subcommittee has been formed to decide whether or not reserve committee members are allowed to attend upcoming committee discussions. Salmawy quoted committee secretary-general Gaber Nasser, who stresses that according to the July presidential decree that established the committee, reserve members do not have voting powers.

A meeting was also held between representatives of the Nour Party, Egypt's Sunni authority Al-Azhar, and Abdel-Gelil Mostafa, chairman of a subcommittee responsible for the constitution's language, in order to reach consensus over what are called the "Islamic identity articles."

"The meeting's objective was to reach an agreement on articles 1, 2, 3, and 4 [the 'Islamic identity articles'] before they are put to a vote," said Salmawy, indicating that "if disagreement persists, we will pass them according to the committee's bylaws requiring a 75 percent majority."

The ten articles endorsed by the committee on Sunday will be referred to the ten-member technical committee for constitutional and legal review. However, the 50-member committee has "final say," Salmawy clarified.

Those ten articles include eight articles under the constitution's chapter three, which regulates "freedoms, rights and public duties."

Salmawy said that the first article of chapter three, article 37, now states "Dignity is a guaranteed right for every human being, and the state is committed to respect and protect it."

Article 38 now reads "All citizens are equal before the law in terms of rights and public duties, and without discrimination in areas of religion, sect, sex, gender, race, language, handicap, geographical location, social status or political affiliation."

This, Salmawy emphasised, differs entirely from the 2012 constitution, namely because it prevents discrimination against citizens on political grounds.

Salmawy added that article 38 will establish an "independent" anti-discrimination commission, including representatives from civil society," to fight all forms of discrimination and hatred in Egypt."

"This is also different from the 2012 constitution, which discriminated against citizens on sectarian grounds."

Article 40 states that "personal freedoms are guaranteed." It also says that "citizens cannot be arrested, inspected, or sent to jail without prior judicial orders and that they cannot be interrogated without lawyers present." Defendants illegally placed into custody are entitled to demand compensation, Salmawy added.

In addition, article 40 stipulates that defendants in custody cannot be tortured in any way and cannot be questioned under torture or threats.

Article 41 states that prisons and detention centres will be subject to judicial supervision. Articles 42 and 43 prevent all forms of spying on the private lives of citizens and house searches without prior judicial orders.

Article 44 ensures that the state is responsible for guaranteeing a secure life for its citizens.

Article 45 concerns the "sanctity" of the human body. This article, said Salmawy, prevents trade in human body parts and forbids the cutting of one's hands on religious grounds.

A technical committee including surgeons Magdi Yacoub and Mohamed Ghoneim was formed to review article 45.

Article 46 guarantees citizens the right to move and immigrate freely. It also forbids any kind of "forced evacuation of citizens," an addition of particular significance to groups such as Egypt's Nubians and Coptic Christians. 

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