NEW YORK -- COPTIC Catholic Bishops in Egypt have hailed the result of the referendum on the country's new constitution, saying the document amounts to a crucial step towards religious freedom and other civil liberties for people of all faiths, including the country's Christian minority.
In interviews with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishops Kyrillos William Samaan of Assiut, Upper Egypt, Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza and Joannes Zakaria of Luxor all praised the result of last week's vote, which officials say registered a 98 percent 'yes' vote in favor of the new constitution which had been drafted under the country's interim regime.
The bishops said that such an overwhelming majority result gave the government a clear mandate to act in accordance with the constitution's precepts, which are seen as hinging on the principle of granting fundamental freedoms to all -- regardless of race, religion, gender and age.
The bishops highlighted the contrast between the new constitution and its predecessor, ratified in December 2012 under ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a former top official in the Muslim Brotherhood, and which was seen to assert the rights of Muslims at the expense of the rights and privileges of non-Muslims.
The bishops also pointed to the new constitution's emphasis on women, children and disabled people, protection of whose rights they said were largely absent from the former constitution. The bishops also confirmed that the rights of Christians were well represented in the new constitution.
Both Bishops Samaan and Zakaria cited extracts from the constitution highlighting the priority of drafting new legislation governing the construction of churches, a process which until now has been very slow and cumbersome for Coptic leaders.
The constitution also paves the way for the election of a new Parliament and a new government and the prelates said that once the changes were in place they hoped the new regime would press forward with the recommended legislation on church construction.
According to the bishops, there is overwhelming public support in Egypt for religious freedom. They said that this stance was self-evident in the referendum result which prompted 20 million "yes" votes--a number much bigger than the previous one where the turn-out was lower and only 64 percent were in favor.
The Muslim Brotherhood had urged its supporters to abstain from last week's vote and--quelling fears that the Brotherhood may again react with violence--the bishops said Islamists were now no longer able to resist the momentum for change and freedom.
Reflecting on the result, Bishop Zakaria said: "I think we are about to start a new future and a new life. Before the referendum, I spoke to my people at the Masses that I celebrated and asked them to vote.
"I said that I would be the first one to go and vote for this constitution. It is a very important moment for the future of Egypt. When I went to vote, the place was crowded -- and a lot of women took part -- and this was not just the case in Luxor but in the whole of the country."
Saying "we are very, very happy about the constitution result," Bishop Samaan said: "When the result came through, there was singing and dancing for joy. Those who put together the constitution tried to think about all the categories of persons--especially the women, the children and the other religious groups."
Bishop Aziz Mina was on the commission responsible for drafting the constitution. Describing his pleasant surprise at the near unanimous 'yes' vote, he said: "I am very pleased with the result. It is a good result for moderate Copts and for others. This is a constitution which, when it is applied by law, will give equal rights to all the religions -- Christians and others."
"This constitution unifies all Egyptians. It is a good constitution because it mentions every Egyptian -- including women, children and all the religious groups," he added.
The bishop also highlighted a chapter in the constitution about Egypt's culture, saying that it specifically makes reference to the ancient Egyptian and Coptic periods--eras until now largely overlooked by Islamists who focus only on the Islamic era from the 7th century onwards.
Highlights of the new constitution:
- The new constitution is considered one of the longest constitutions of Egypt, as it reached the number of (247) articles, including 42 new article, 18 articles in the freedoms section and 45 articles concerning workers and peasants.
- The Constitution includes several articles -and not only one --that concern the Christian citizens directly these articles are: (3-50 - 53-64 - 74-180 - 235-244).
- That in addition to the preamble and some other articles that do not refer directly Christians, but they benefit from them, especially in the field of public rights and freedoms, as the following:
- The preamble indicates that the Egyptian people welcomes "The Virgin Mary and her newborn and protecting her during her sacred journey across Egypt, which expresses the respect and appreciation for the Christian religion" also the queries has issued a booklet about the Holy Family trip to Egypt several years ago. The introduction of Islam in Egypt has worked on the protection of Egyptian Christians from the Romans who were occupying Egypt during this period; the Egyptians gave thousands of martyrs for the sake of the defense of the Church of Christ. The preamble used the famous saying of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III: "Egypt is not a country that we live in, but a country that lives in us." It also noted that Al-Azhar and the Egyptian church appreciate what the people's army does to protect the national will, it also expressed in the words of the Egyptian people, "we are writing a constitution that preserves our freedoms and protects the nation from all threats to our national unity."
- Article (3) of the Constitution states that "the principles of the canons of the Egyptians, Christians and Jews, are the main source of legislation regulating their personal and religious affairs and how they choose their leaders," this article stresses on the independence of the church and the Egyptian christians when it comes to their religious affairs.
- Article (50) states that " Egypt's civilizational and cultural -material and moral -- heritage, in all its diversity and major stages: ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic, is a national and humanitarian wealth, which the state abides to preserve and maintain, as well as the contemporary cultural architectural stock,also the literary and artistic ones with their various diversities, and the assault of any of those is a crime punishable by law." The state pays special attention to maintaining the components of cultural pluralism in Egypt.
- Article (53) indicates that "all citizens are equal in rights and freedoms and public duties before the law, with no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, and the discrimination and incitement to hatred is considered a crime that is punishable by law." This means that he who is exposed to discrimination has the right to sue the responsible for this act, which limits the persecution of Christians or women or others.
- Article (64) stipulates the "absolute freedom of belief and religious practice and the establishment of houses of worship for divine religions adherents, as a right organized without limitation or narrowing"
- Article 74 states that "the right to form political parties should not be based on religion or a discrimination because of sex or ethnic origin or on a sectarian or geographic basis" which prohibits the formation of parties on a religious basis.
- Article (180) conditions that a quarter of local council seats are allocated for young people under the age of (35) and the quarter of the number dedicated for women, that with the representation of workers and peasants for 50% of the total number of seats, and that percentage should include an appropriate representation of Christians and the disabled. This means commitment to the representation of Christians in local councils.
- Article(235) states : the commitment of the parliament in its first convening,after the adoption of the Constitution, to issue a law that regulates the construction and renovation of churches, to ensure the free exercise of the religious rituals for Christians, "this came as an expression of everyone's desire to repair the harm the churches suffered during the country's war on terrorism and sectarian ideas, as well as the organization of building another new ones.
- Article (244) stipulates that "The State shall work to achieve appropriate representation for young people, Christians, persons with disabilities and Egyptians abroad on the first parliament convening, as the law will determine, this is positive discrimination that helps these groups to access the parliamentary seats with fair proportions and that to skip the conditions that do not allow them to access.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. Websites: United States, Great Britain, Australia, Ireland.