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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