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New Egyptian Constitution Betrays Coptic Christians

By Michael Terheyden
January 2nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

America's children (and many parents) woke up bleary-eyed Christmas morning in excited anticipation of colorfully wrapped presents waiting for them under the Christmas tree. But it was a mixed bag for the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Their new government stuffed an Islamist constitution in their stockings. 

KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - America's children (and many parents) woke up bleary-eyed Christmas morning in excited anticipation of colorfully wrapped presents waiting for them under the Christmas tree. But it was not so joyful in many places throughout the world. In some Muslim countries, Christians are afraid to openly celebrate their faith; in others, they do so reservedly.

It was a mixed bag for the Coptic Christians of Egypt this year. Their new government stuffed an Islamist-based constitution in their stockings. This New Year's Eve, people around the world will celebrate the coming year in hope of a new and better future. But the Copts will pray that they will be able to live in freedom from persecution and celebrate Christmas in peace next year.

The controversy surrounding Egypt's new constitution goes back to April of this year, when the General Council for the Coptic Orthodox Church unanimously decided to withdraw from talks on the constitution. Shortly thereafter committee members from the Coptic Catholic Church and the Protestant Christian community followed. But it was not just Christians who were frustrated by the Islamists. Many members from Egypt's secular parties also pulled out of the talks for the same reason.

The reason for these pullouts was that the drafting committee for writing Egypt's new constitution was dominated by Islamists. Christians and liberal Muslims believed the committee should represent the nation's diversity, but Islamists said it should reflect the composition of parliament. Islamist groups made sweeping victories in the recent parliamentary elections, and they claimed that their victories gave them a mandate to Islamize Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood was the biggest winner. They secured approximately 47 percent of the available seats in the lower house. The Salafis came in second with about 25 percent. Both Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, did almost as well in the upper house. However, a court did not agree that they had a mandate to Islamize the country. Consequently, the court dissolved the committee charged with writing Egypt's new constitution, or at least they attempted to dissolve it.

In November, President Morsi responded to the delays surrounding the drafting of the constitution. In an effort to hold a referendum on a new constitution before the end of the year, he issued a declaration giving himself sweeping, dictatorial-style power. President Morsi thereby banned all challenges to his decrees and decisions. He also declared that no court could dissolve the committee drafting the constitution, and he fired the head of the judiciary.

The President's actions unleashed a firestorm. A group of judges said, "The state of law is at stake." The Vice-President of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Tahani al-Gebali, said that Morsi was now an "illegitimate president." And Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said, "Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh."

Some protestors trashed the offices of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. President Morsi was forced to flee for his safety as protestors marched on the presidential palace in Cairo and clashed with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. At one point, an estimated 200,000 protestors flooded into Cairo's famous Tahrir Square, the home of the Egyptian revolution two years ago.

President Morsi initially responded by claiming that he was for all Egyptians. "I will not be biased against any son of Egypt," he said. He tried to present himself as the guardian of national stability and claimed to be in favor of genuine and strong opposition. He said, "I am the guarantor of that and I will protect for my brothers in the opposition all their rights so they can exercise their role."

But the protestors did not fall for the President's rhetoric: Their passion merely burned brighter. In order to quell the protests, Morsi was eventually forced to back down. But it was a short-lived, hollow victory for the protestors. Despite assurances that minorities would be fairly represented on the committee to draft the new Egyptian constitution, it never happened.

The final constitution was drafted by a committee dominated by Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood was able to get the new constitution approved just before Christmas. The approval process was based on a two-stage referendum. Voter turnout was unexpectedly low. Only one-third of the people had enough interest in the referendum to cast a vote, but most of the actual voters apparently favored a constitution. The referendum passed by almost a 2 to 1 ratio.

Many people are now worried that "Egypt will witness a new phase of repression." This especially concerns religious minorities such as the Coptic Christian community. One of their main concerns involves religious freedom and Article 2 of the constitution. It states that "Islam is the Religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence [Sharia]."

Article 2 has been a bone of contention for the Coptic Christian community. They petitioned for its removal under Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak. Although the Copts suffered discrimination under Mubarak, he was trying to steer his country in a secular direction.

This is not the same as Western secularism, which, for all intents and purposes, is an aggressive atheistic belief system. In Muslim countries, like Egypt, secularism primarily refers to a form of governance whereby non-Muslims are treated equally under the law.

Therefore, Article 2 was generally interpreted loosely under Mubarak, but this is not the intention of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which President Morsi has long been a member. The Muslim Brotherhood has been a radical, Islamist organization since its inception.

It was founded by Hasan al-Banna in1928 as an Islamist religious, political, and social movement. In his book, Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism, George Weigel writes that al-Banna believed "After cleansing the House of Islam, true Muslims would cleanse their territories of infidels and unbelievers. . . ." For al-Banna, "Islam was 'both a religion and a state,' such that the Qur'an and the sword were 'inseparable.'"

Al-Banna's vision did not change through the years. During the Second World War, the Muslim Brotherhood sided with the Nazis, and they supported terrorist activities in Palestine. They also assimilated the Nazi's views against the Jews and Western societies into their reform movement. The Muslim Brotherhood were also implicated in a failed plot to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's leader in 1965, and in the successful assassination of Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, in 1980.

It is no wonder, then, why Mubarak outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and put some of its members in prison when he became president. And we should not be surprised now that the Muslim Brotherhood not only left Article 2 in the new constitution, but also added wording which subjects this contentious article to a more fundamentalist interpretation of sharia law.

Based on sharia law, non-Muslims fall into one of two categories. The first category is made up of pagans. The second category is made up of "people of the book," meaning people whose religion is based on sacred texts. This includes the Jews and the Christians. Muslims refer to people who fall into this category as dhimmis.

Historically, the dhimmis were allowed to live in Muslim society and to practice their religion, but in return, they were required to pay a special poll tax known as the jizya. Payment of this poll tax was understood to be a mark of their submission to the Muslim authority. But it was more than that; it was a mark of total subjugation and humiliation.

According to one translation of the Koran, chapter 9:29 reads, "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."

They say that a leopard does not change its spots, and this is exactly what we have seen with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the election process and the drafting of the new constitution. We need to pay attention to what they do not what they say. And it appears that they have used the democratic process from the onset merely as a means to an end: The acquisition of power and the Islamization of Egypt. This is not democracy or freedom or peace. 

As we celebrate the New Year, let us hope and pray that our Coptic brothers and sisters in Christ, and all Christians throughout the world, will be able to live in freedom from persecution and celebrate Christmas in peace next year.

 
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Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.

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