Newly selected Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II is warning that he will pull the Christian delegates from the Egyptian Constituent Assembly if a religious freedom article in the nation’s draft constitution is compromised.
Tawadros, who recently was chosen as the deceased Pope Shenouda III’s successor, says Christians will stand firm on Article 2.
And he’s warning other Egyptians that the assembly is becoming too radical.
The move by the Coptic pope could derail the constitutional process in Egypt.
Egyptian Christian human rights lawyer and Cairo resident Wagih Yacoub praised the decision.
“It’s the right thing to do, and it will be effective,” Yacoub said. “We hope he will carry through with his threat.”
Yacoub said that if the Christians leave, it will reproduce the nation’s chaos in the early 1970s.
“It will take us back to the way it was when Pope Shenouda challenged President [Anwar El] Sadat who was trying to impose Shariah law on Egypt,” Yacoub said.
“Pope Shenouda III demanded that the Coptic community pray and fast for three days. That was in ’71,” Yacoub said. “We see history repeating itself.”
Yacoub says the Muslim Salafists are in reality trying to hijack the entire country.
“We hope he will follow through and pull out,” Yacoub says. “The Salafists are trying to take over the country.”
Coptic Christian support of the process is integral to the success of drafting a new Egyptian Constitution, because without the Copts, said International Christian Concern Middle East analyst Aidan Clay, the constitution falls apart.
Clay explained that this is why the Muslim Brotherhood has a major stake in the Copts staying in the Constituent Assembly.
“While the Brotherhood also ultimately wants a Shariah-based constitution, they have taken a more gradualist approach and have compromised on strategic concessions to liberals and minorities in an effort to gain their support,” Clay said.
“If Christian representatives were to walk out, the Brotherhood would be fiercely condemned for not addressing the concerns of minorities and liberals,” Clay said. “They would have to start the process all over again.”
Clay said that the Muslim Brotherhood has portrayed itself as the moderate voice in Egypt, adding that Copt withdrawal would expose the Brotherhood’s true intentions.
“The Brotherhood routinely repeats the phrase that Egypt is for all Egyptians. However, how can that be true if the demands of non-Muslims are not addressed in the drafting of the country’s constitution?” Clay said.
Yacoub said the Coptic Church has its own objectives in the process but that the Christians are not alone in their desire to see Article 2 ratified in its present form.
“The church prays for its own way,” Yacoub said. “But there are other civilian parties and they’re threatening to pull out by Sunday. They were very close to finalizing the Constitution, then all of a sudden they are faced with seeing it not happen.”
All sides of the debate agree that Article 2 in its present wording is vital to maintaining any appearance of religious freedom. Clays said that the article has also become a major hurdle for the aggressive advocates of Shariah in Egypt.
“An article that has become central to the debate leading up to the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution is Article 2 which states that the principles of Islamic Shariah are the main source for legislation,” Clay said.
Clay said Salafis are demanding that the Article 2 reference be changed to say Shariah rulings, “rather than principles.”
He said the change would demand Egyptian law abide by a strict interpretation of Shariah determined by clerics.
“Thousands of Salafi protesters – who adhere to the radical Wahhabi doctrine of Islam found in Saudi Arabia – gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday demanding that the wording of Article 2 be changed to ‘rulings’ of Shariah in their bid for immediate implementation of Islamic law in Egypt,” Clay said.
“Prior to the protests, Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood attempted to accommodate Salafi demands by proposing that an article be added to the constitution that defines the meaning of principles of Shariah as juristic rules agreed upon by scholars and the ‘accepted sources’ of the Quran’s interpretation,” Clay said.
“The Constituent Assembly, a 100-member body tasked with drafting the constitution, is dominated by Islamists, including many Salafis who want to alter the wording of Article 2 to ‘rulings’ of Shariah,” Clay said.
“If the article were to be altered, Egypt will become an Islamic state in every sense of the meaning, as extremists will be able to challenge laws that they believe don’t adhere to their interpretation of Shariah and they will be able to appoint legislators that will impose a strict interpretation of Shariah, which would limit civil liberties, including the religious freedoms of Christians,” Clay said.
“Egypt’s new Coptic pope has threatened to withdraw church representatives from the assembly. Salafis would of course welcome the pope’s decision, which may make it easier for them to push for the changes without opposition from Christian representatives in the assembly. However, the withdrawal of Christian representatives would be a blow to the Brotherhood, who comprises the majority of the assembly,” Clay said.
Clay said the reason Christian withdrawal would be a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood is that it will remove the Brotherhood’s cover.
“It has to be remembered that a previous Constituent Assembly was disbanded earlier this year by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court following the withdrawal of liberals and minorities because they did not have fair representation,” Clay said.
“The Brotherhood does not want that to happen again, especially since they are so close to finalizing the document, which may be released within the next couple weeks before being put to a public referendum,” Clay said.