Originally published in Baptist Press
Egyptian voters have approved a new constitution, leaving Christians a bit more hopeful, though it does not secure basic rights for religious minorities.
One Egyptian Christian leader said the difference in attitudes he observed as he waited in line to vote was “a great tendency to celebrate a new Egypt that returned us back from the iron grip of radical Muslims,” Mission Network News reported.
The country’s new constitution was approved by 98.1 percent of the 38.6 percent of eligible voters who turned out for a two-day referendum in mid-January as the first step of a so-called road map to democracy. Next are presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.
Christians are expected to fare slightly better under the new constitution compared to the one drafted during the one-year presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was removed from office last July.
Specifically, the blasphemy statute that prohibited the “insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets,” which was used against Christians, has been removed, according to Morning Star News, which reports on the persecuted church worldwide.
Still, the new constitution, which is regarded as generous toward the military, renders Christians and other non-Muslims second-class citizens, and establishes Islam as the state religion and sharia (Islamic law) as the “principle source of legislation” for Egypt.
Even human rights activists agree the relative improvement does not provide guarantees for the exercise of numerous rights and liberties addressed by the constitution, Morning Star News reported.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised concerns Jan. 18 about the fairness of the vote, given that it was nearly unanimous. The New York Times said Kerry mentioned the “polarized political environment,” the absence of an inclusive drafting process or public debate before the vote as well as the arrests of those who campaigned against it.
“Democracy is more than any one referendum or election. It is about equal rights and protections under the law for all Egyptians, regardless of their gender, faith, ethnicity or political affiliation,” Kerry said.
Christians in Egypt “seem lined up behind the constitution,” Morning Star News noted as the vote was underway. “It is hard to find a Copt [member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt’s largest Christian minority] who says they will vote against it, even if they don’t support it. One reason for this, human rights activists said, is the perception that the country will otherwise continue its descent into chaos or revert to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood or hardline Salafis.”
Another reason for support among Christians, Morning Star News said, is that the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church urged followers to vote in favor of it.
“I will vote yes, but I am not happy about it,” a Coptic Christian in Cairo said. “[The constitution] means we are ruled by Islamic rules. Still, it’s very, very good compared to Morsi’s.”
David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, visited Egypt ahead of the referendum and observed that people were hoping to move on after three years of instability and economic hardship following the Arab Spring. “The people are generally excited about a chance for some stabilization,” he said.
“The last couple of years have really been what we’re calling an ‘Arab Winter’ in Egypt where the Islamic radical forces — those that would be less about religion and more about regimes — cracked down on Christians,” Curry said, according to Mission Network News.
Egypt recently declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, boosting optimism among believers. Regarding the new constitution, Curry said he believes the Christian community “is looking at this as an opportunity for some more freedoms.”
Curry noted, though, that some are concerned the Muslim Brotherhood will not fade from power without a fight.
“They’re going to be on the outside now for a long time,” he said, “and they’re going to continue to lash out. But I hope that the government will take steps to protect soft targets like churches.”
As believers worldwide pray for peace in Egypt, Curry requested specific prayer for Christians in the southern part of the nation, outside Cairo.
“There are some very radical forces in the more rural areas that make it very dangerous for Christians,” Curry said. “Pray for security of their churches so people can worship in freedom without fear of being blown up or shot.”
Attacks on Christians and churches last year led to Egypt rising to No. 22 on Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch List, a ranking of the top 50 countries where persecution is most severe.