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Debating Religious Freedom in the Constitution: European Concerns and Egyptian Realities

L: Amr Moussa, head of Egypt's constitutional committee; R: Catherine Ashton, EU representative for foreign affairs
L: Amr Moussa, head of Egypt’s constitutional committee; R: Catherine Ashton, EU representative for foreign affairs

From my recent article at Arab West Report, focusing on the critique of Dr. Wolfram Reiss, professor of historical and comparative studies of religions at the University of Vienna, and the response of Bishop Antonios of the Coptic Catholic Church:

Reiss believes that the post-Mursī constitution of 2014 removed the worst features of the 2012 charter, in particular the role given to the Azhar in review of legislation in Article 3, and the definition of sharī‘ah along traditional lines of jurisprudence in Article 219.

Yet despite the amendment and removal of certain articles, Reiss finds that the constitution of 2014 does not provide a sufficiently new basis for any of the urgent questions which have long prompted interreligious debate. The question of the building and repair of churches is postponed, religious freedom is guaranteed only for already recognized groups, the question of apostasy is not addressed, and the mention of political representation for Christians is very vague.

“I do not see any progress concerning religious freedom and the status of the Christians in Egypt,” he wrote in an email to Cornelis Hulsman. “So I see the ‘new’ constitution as a preservation of the status quo only. I would be grateful if you (or H.G. Anba Antonius) could convince me that I am wrong.”

The article elaborates his concerns and adds Hulsman’s description of background context. Reiss had read the full transcript of an earlier interview with Bishop Antonios, and responds:

As for the articles specifically discussed concerning religious freedom, Bishop Antonios both agreed and disagreed with the comments of Reiss. “Anything in the world might not be done correctly and could go wrong,” he said. “There has to be a public will for the constitution to be applied.”

This was his comment specifically about Article 53 on discrimination, but it concerns also the issues of apostasy and the rights of non-monotheistic religious adherents. The constitution states that freedom of belief is ‘absolute’, improving and strengthening the language of earlier versions. Of course this means one has the right to change religions. Concerning Baha’is in particular, Article 6 on citizenship states that obtaining official papers proving his personal data is a right, so how can the religion field be recorded incorrectly? But, he understood, the reality for both could be different.

Reality also dictated the acceptance of Articles 2 and 3, as well as 235 on church building. His personal opinion is with Reiss, that it would be better if the language of the constitution did not differentiate by religion. This even included Article 244 on Copts in parliament. Bishop Antonios is against quotas of any kind.

On this article he agreed with Reiss that the language was vague, but that this provided flexibility. It may be preferable to have a certain system to promote Copts in parliament given current realities about the lack of familiarity with democracy, but the law on this matter can change year by year as the reality changes. Ongoing political dialogue, as well as the will of the public, will determine implementation.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Bishop Antonious: A Full Transcript on Constitutional Proceedings

Bishop Antonios

Bishop Antonious Aziz of the Coptic Catholic Church served as his church’s representative on the Committee of Fifty which rewrote Egypt’s constitution. He agreed to an interview with Arab West Report on December 10, 2013, shortly after the final text was approved by the committee and just over one month before ratification by the Egyptian people in a referendum on January 14-15. In the interview he provided clear and frank insight into the inner workings of the committee.

Arab West Report has provided a full transcript of the interview, available here. To summarize, Bishop Antonious described the process of his selection by the president and church, and the subcommittees on which he served. Each member assigned himself a place in one or more of five groupings: Basic Components of the State, Rights and Freedoms, System of Governance, Listening, and Drafting.

The bishop worked in the first and last of these subcommittees, making him uniquely qualified to comment on the passage of the key religious articles, from start to finish.

The listening committee received proposals from hundreds of citizens, forwarding these to members of the appropriate group. The group would interact with these alongside their own proposals, taking internal votes to forward their consensus text to the drafting committee. The drafting committee would then amend both wording and content as they saw fit, sending the article back to the subcommittee to produce a consolidated text. This text would then be debated by the full Committee of Fifty, which after agreement would enter a final, non-binding review by the Committee of Ten. These ten were constitutional experts who provided the Committee of Fifty the initial amended copy of the 2012 constitution, from which to work. Finally, every article required a 75 percent vote of approval to merit placement in the constitution, and the majority of articles passed without difficulty.

Getting to the place of passage, however, often entailed much difficulty. This was nowhere more evident than the religious identity articles which lead the constitutional text. Because of the difficulty, these were postponed until the end.

Bishop Antonious described the interaction between the church, Azhar, and Salafi Nour Party representatives. In Article 1, should Egypt be part of the Muslim nation (ummah)? Should Article 2, making sharī’ah the primary source of legislation, remain in the constitution? Should it be further interpreted, as done in Article 219 of the 2012 constitution?

Should Article 3, giving rights in personal status and religious organization to Christians and Jews, be extended to non-Muslims in general? Should Article 7 maintain language from 2012 giving the Azhar a role in the process of legislation? In all these articles and more, Bishop Antonious provided insight into the manner of discussion which eventually produced agreement. He also describes the personal interaction and attitudes experienced along the way.

Not everything in the final text met with Bishop Antonious’ agreement, and he is frank about some of these areas. But even so, the end result is a constitution with which he is deeply satisfied. Please click here to read the full transcript of the interview at Arab West Report.

Photo credit: ACN