Rarely has a constitution so divided a nation. Protests, both for and against and sometimes violent, have filled the street. Egypt’s Christians, meanwhile, are caught in the middle. Though united against the proposed draft, their responses have varied considerably.
“It was definitely right for Christians to protest,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani and a long time advocate of cooperation with the Islamist administration.
“But this was not a Christian move, it was a liberal Egyptian protest meant to save the civil state.”
Despite his conciliatory position toward the Muslim Brotherhood, Sidhom had warned the day might come to return to the street if Islamists tried to implement a religious agenda. When President Morsi assumed temporary dictatorial powers to push through this constitution, he believed it was time.
“There are many indirect clauses that can lead to an Islamic state, and a few direct ones as well,” he said. Chief among these is Article 219 which makes traditional Islamic jurisprudence the primary source of legislation. Article 4, furthermore, gives a role to unelected Muslim scholars who must be consulted on laws regarding their conformity with shariah.
But it was the Islamist response to these protests which makes Sidhom believe they have shown their true colors.
“They made vicious remarks stating the protests were 60-80 percent Christian,” he said. “This shows they realize the solidarity that exists between liberals, moderate Muslims, and Christians, and they are trying to break it.”
Indeed, in an effort to mobilize votes for the constitution, the official Muslim Brotherhood website featured a story alleging Christians exchanged SMS messages urging a ‘no’ vote because they wanted ‘a Coptic state’. Safwat Hegazi, appointed by Morsi to the National Council for Human Rights and a fixture during his presidential campaign, warned the church that if it threatened Morsi’s legitimacy Muslims will threaten them ‘with blood’.
Hegazi’s remarks were filmed at a Salafi Muslim sit-in protest at Media Production City, where they believe their image is being disfigured in the press.
“In the sharia, which people do not understand correctly, everyone takes their full rights – the woman, the non-Muslim, everyone,” said Ibrahim Eid, an ophthalmologist and the media coordinator of Students for Sharia, present at the protest. Salafis there were peaceful and friendly.
This message came across to Daniel Wahba, a Coptic taxi driver. Idling in the parking lot, Salafis engaged him winsomely.
“Is there anything in the constitution that will hurt us as Christians?” he said. “Won’t we still be able to go to the church and pray?”
But it was the fear associated with general Islamist domination that affected Susie Fayiz, a Coptic housewife. “I didn’t vote,” she said. “They are just going to rig the referendum in their favor anyway.”
Preliminary results show the ‘yes’ vote in the lead with 56 percent, amid accusations of fraud. Half of Egypt’s electorate is scheduled to vote next week.
Thousands of Christians took to the streets to protest, and thousands of Christians went to the polls to vote. In between, ten thousand gathered to go to their knees in prayer.
“We are here tonight to pray for Egypt in all that it is going through, and let us pray with tears,” said Fr. Simaan, a Coptic Orthodox priest serving the city’s garbage collectors. Their expansive cathedral is built into a cave in the Muqattam Mountains east of Cairo.
One year earlier, Fr. Simaan conducted a similar prayer gathering for all of Egypt’s Christian denominations, which drew upwards of 40,000 people. Plans to repeat the expression of unity have been in the works for months, but this meeting was only announced one week earlier, scheduled for two days before the referendum.
If there was any intentionality it did not appear during the rally. From 6pm until 6am the next morning, not once was the referendum mentioned. The general state of Egypt, however, was on everyone’s mind.
“Some of us see demonstrations and conspiracies, but I see Egypt going right. I see great days ahead of us,” said Fr. Andrawus, an Orthodox priest from Damanhour in the Nile Delta.
“Some say this country is being destroyed or being stolen. I say God is coming and he will not be late. This coming year will be the best ever for the church. The heavens will open, the church will be united, and we will be freed from fear and learn to love.”
Love is Fr. Simaan’s great emphasis, and he wishes to tell the world Copts love their nation and their fellow citizens. As Egyptian flags flew everywhere, six different satellite channels carried his exhortation.
“We pray for our brothers, both Christian and Muslim. We pray for our brothers, the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers,” he preached to great applause.
“We pray for them that God will open their hearts and keep them from harm. We are not in a war, we are in prayer.”
The church took no official position on the referendum, other than to encourage people to vote. Many participants, however, freely interpreted the point of these prayers.
“We pray for stability, safety, and a constitution we can all agree on, not one from just one slice of the country,” said Michael Magdy. Others, however, were less specific of divine providence.
“We love Egypt because it is our country, and we love God,” said Amal Samy. “We’re confident he will stand with us and lift this crisis, giving a rescue no one can expect.”
Fr. Simaan does care for a good constitution, but his focus is elsewhere.
“Perhaps the current circumstances are permitted by God as part of his plan,” he said. The Islamists have their sharia and their plans, and God will hold them accountable according to what they have received.
“But he will hold us accountable for how we live with them.”
Protests and prayer have their essential place, but amid the crises of Egypt, perhaps this is the way to peace.
- Proposed Constitution Opens Door to an Islamic State – December 19, 2012
- Before Egypt Votes, Christians Pray – December 15, 2012 (more pictures and video of prayer event)