Religious encounters

Conflict over religious freedoms plagues the preliminary drafts of Egypt’s new constitution – Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Gamal Essam El-Din, Sept 25, 2013.

The 50-member committee tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution held its second plenary meeting yesterday to review progress during its second week on the job.

The committee’s media spokesperson Mohamed Salmawy said on Tuesday that half of the new constitution’s articles had been drafted by the sub-committees. He warned, however, that the articles worked on so far were the least controversial and that the second half will take more time. 

New reports have played up the differences between the emerging draft and the 2012 constitution drawn up by a constituent assembly dominated by Islamists.

One significant change, says committee head Amr Moussa, is that Article 3 which guarantees Christians and Jews the right to exercise their religious rites will probably be extended to include all non-Muslims. Article 3 currently states that “For Egyptian Christians and Jews the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.” The amended version is expected to state that “for all Egyptian non-Muslims the principles of their religious laws will be the main source in regulating their personal status…etc”.

The proposed change is opposed by Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, the newly-appointed representative of the ultraconservative Nour Party. In a closed meeting on Monday Mansour issued the melodramatic warning that the term “non-Muslims” would open gates to “religious sects like worshippers of the devil”.

Mansour also rejects changes to Article 4 which would no longer make it obligatory to consult Al-Azhar on matters pertaining to Islamic Sharia.
Defending the new approach to religious freedom, Mona Zul-Faqqar, deputy chairman of the committee, told a press conference on Monday that it was essential the new constitution eliminate all forms of discrimination. “Article 3 discriminates among citizens on the basis of religion,” she said, adding that “there is a growing consensus among members that it be amended to give followers of all religions freedoms in terms of worship and rites.”

Salmawy had argued previously that amending Article 3 to give followers of all religions the right to worship would ensure the constitution was not at odds with international conventions on human rights. “I think efforts aimed at instituting greater religious freedom have gathered momentum among the committee members in recent days,” he told a press conference on Sunday.

Zul-Faqqar revealed that debates have also erupted over articles 1 and 2. A majority, she says, is now in favour of amending Article 1 to state that Egypt is a civil state.

“The word civil will underline that Egypt is not a religious state or one governed by the military,” says Zul-Faqqar. “It also means that no authority is above the law.”

Al-Azhar, Zul-Faqqar told reporters, had proposed changing the article to read “Egypt is a civil, constitutional state,” only for the Nour Party to raise objections. The Nour Party representative, she added, had argued that “it is enough for the content of the constitution to underscore that Egypt is a civil state without mentioning the word itself.”

Zul-Faqqar stressed that including the word civil would be tantamount to announcing a ban on religious political parties. She also pointed out that Article 54 of the constitution, as amended by the 10-member technical committee, excluded “political parties established on religious foundations”.

“Once the constitution is passed, new legislation is likely to be needed to regulate the performance of political parties and ensure they do engage in religious activities,” said Zul-Faqqar. “Such legislation will be designed to help religious parties adjust themselves to comply with Article 54. If they fail to do so they will face the prospect of being dissolved.”

The Nour Party is insisting that Article 2, which states that “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the major source of legislation in Egypt” should be changed by removing the word “principle” as a condition for its agreeing to the cancellation of Article 219 which fixes a conservative definition of Sharia. Zul-Faqqar says the demand is opposed by a majority of committee members who want Article 2 left intact and who are happy for the Supreme Constitutional Court to continue to rule on whether Egyptian laws are in line with Islamic Sharia or not.

Mansour told the Basic Components Sub-committee on Monday that the Nour Party is ready to agree on a consensus constitution with all political forces “as long as its articles do not violate the Quran or Sunna”. He also argued that “Article 219 is very important to stress Egypt’s Islamic identity” … //

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