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Coptic group calls for protest against proposed constitutional changes

Maspero Youth Union calls for demonstrations against recent proposals by Salafist parties that would make Islamic Law 'sole source' of legislation in Egypt's next constitution

Ekram Ibrahim, Wednesday 25 Jul 2012
Copts protest
File Photo from clashes in deadly pro-Coptic demonstration on Sunday 9 October to protest the demolition of El-Marinab church (Photo: Reuters
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Amid ongoing negotiations over Egypt's new constitution, Maspero Youth Union– a Coptic-Christian revolutionary movement – announced its rejection of recent proposals to make Islamic Law "the sole source" of Egyptian legislation.

"We will not approve a constitution that abolishes the civil state and encourages discrimination," the group declared on its official Facebook page on Wednesday. 

The movement is calling on all Coptic-Christians to take part in a protest outside Cairo's Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya on Friday at noon. Protesters will call on Coptic Bishop Bakhomios, who is currently acting as interim pope, to withdraw all church representatives from Egypt's Constituent Assembly – tasked with drafting a new national charter – "after their failure to preserve constitutional articles and allowing Egypt to be turned into a religious state," according to the group's statement.

A final decision has yet to be taken regarding the constitution, yet Salafist parties – members of which adhere to an ultra-conservative brand of Islam – have stepped up efforts to impose strict Islamic tenets on Egypt's new constitution. The two leading Salafist parties, the Nour and Asala parties, both seek to change the first three articles of Egypt's 1971 national charter. While they have been successful in their attempts to change the first article, they failed to change the second or third articles due to pressure from Egypt's Al-Azhar institution and liberal forces.

On Article 1, the Constituent Assembly’s basic components committee approved the Salafist request to add the word 'consultative' (a literal translation of the Arabic shura) to the article. Mohamed Emara, an Islamist thinker and committee chairman, said the revised article now reads: "The Arab Republic of Egypt is democratic, consultative, constitutional and modern, based on the separation of powers and the principle of citizenship." It adds that Egypt "is part of the Arab and Islamic nation, with strong ties to the African continent."

Previously, Article 1 had read: "The Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic state based on citizenship. The Egyptian people are part of the Arab nation and work for the realisation of its comprehensive unity."

On Article 2, Salafist parties insisted on removing the word 'principles' on the grounds that it provides judges with a means of circumventing implementation of Islamic Law. They also believe that Islamic Law, not merely its principles, should be the main source of legislation to ensure that the hudood, or the ordinances of God – such as amputating the hands of thieves – be applied.

The constitutional drafting committee is currently studying four suggestions for the controversial Article 2, one of which is to keep it as is: "Islam is the religion of the state; Arabic is the official religion of the state; and principles of Islamic Law represent the major source of legislation."

A second suggestion is to add that Egypt's Al-Azhar represents the reference for all religious interpretation, and that Christian and Jewish religious authorities should decide on their respective personal and religious matters and choose their own religious leaders. In this case, the revised article would read: "Al-Azhar is the main reference for interpreting the principles of Islamic Law and non-Muslims, especially the followers of Christianity and Judaism, should refer to their religions on personal matters, religious affairs and the selection of their respective religious leaders.”

The third suggestion is to not include references to Al-Azhar in Article 2 and include it in a separate article related to the independence of Al-Azhar, in addition to adding another article stipulating that the followers of other religions be treated according to their own particular religious tenets.

A final suggestion is to disregard Al-Azhar altogether, merely stating that followers of other religions are to be treated according to their respective religion's personal status laws.

On Article 3, the charter currently states: "Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority. The people shall exercise and protect this sovereignty, and safeguard national unity in the manner specified in the constitution." Salafist parties, for their part, want to remove the phrase "the people" in the second sentence and replace it with "God" so as to read: "Sovereignty is for God, who is the prime source of authority."

Liberal, secular and Coptic activists have expressed concern about the Salafist parties' suggestions. The recent call by the Maspero Copts United movement represents the first call for an organised protest against the proposed modifications.

The Constituent Assembly's fate, meanwhile, remains uncertain, with several legal appeals having been lodged against its constitutionality following the abrupt dissolution of parliament's democratically-elected lower house – which selected members of the assembly – in June.

Also in June, several MPs withdrew from the assembly, saying that that the constitution-drafting body failed to reflect the diversity of Egyptian society.  

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