Three Coptic Catholic bishops have said that Egypt's new constitution threatens human rights and imposes Islamic sharia law in many areas of the country.
“We were waiting for a constitution that represents the whole of Egypt, but instead we have one that only represents one group of people,” Bishop Kyrillos William, administrator of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, told the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
He said the constitution “not only outlines the principles of Sharia, but describes in detail all of the values and opinions contained in the sharia. It will be terrible: Everything will be interpreted according to sharia.”
“Everywhere in the constitution there are clauses saying everything should be in accordance with Islamic law,” the bishop said, charging that this countered President Mohammed Morsi’s promise to build a modern democratic state.
President Morsi signed the constitution into law Jan. 9 after voters approved the constitution by 63.8% in a two-part December election that attracted 16 million voters overall, a 32.9% turnout.
Christians, secular groups and other minority opposition groups said they felt excluded from the assembly that drafted the constitution. In April 2012, the Coptic Orthodox Church withdrew from the constitutional talks to protest the proposed Islamist content. Coptic Catholic and Protestant representatives soon followed, as did secular parties.
Observers such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch also said that the constitution fails to protect freedom of religion.
The constitution’s supporters said the constitution protects personal rights, especially detainees in the judicial system, CNN reported. They said it guarantees the country’s stability after the long civil turmoil that began with protests on Jan. 25, 2011, that helped drive from power Egypt’s previous president, Hosni Mubarak.
Bishop William joined Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor and Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza in warning against the constitution.
“We can see that the religious orientation of this constitution prepares the way for an Islamic caliphate,” Bishop William said, referring to the historical union between Islamic and civil authority in Egypt.
The Catholic bishops voiced concern that the constitution would force non-Muslim women to wear Islamic headscarves. The constitution allows women who are “sexually mature” to marry, which the bishops worry would legitimize marriages for young teenagers.
“The Islamists want to apply sharia law especially with regard to women. It is very bad for women and very bad for non-Muslims in society,” Bishop Zakaria told Aid to the Church in Need.
He said the constitution is the work of fundamentalist Muslims and will affect Christians’ ability to manage their churches.
“It was already hard to get permission to repair a church in President Mubarak’s time; now it will be ever harder,” he said.
The bishop said the situation will be “much worse” for Shiite Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists and others who “are not even recognized in the constitution.”
Bishop Aziz said the constitution “does not take into consideration human rights for all.” He warned that the constitution implicitly allows child labor.
Both Bishop William and Bishop Aziz accused the government of major voter electoral malpractice in the December elections, noting the low turnout.
Bishop William cited reports that ballots voting against the constitution had been found in toilets and accusations that campaigners in favor of the constitution bribed voters with oil, rice and other goods.
The bishops said that parliamentary elections later in 2013 will be a vote of confidence on the new constitution.
Bishop William said the Egyptian people should “fight for their rights.” He said the Church cannot speak in the name of the people, but the Church can make people aware of the issues.
The only female judge to sit on Egypt’s highest court has filed a legal challenge against the constitution, but observers do not expect the challenge to succeed, The Associated Press reported.
President Morsi addressed questions about religious freedom in a Jan. 6 CNN interview. He said that there is “freedom of belief and freedom of worship for Muslims, Christians and others” for the first time in Egypt’s constitution.
He said Christian Copts are “my beloveds and the children of the nation, the Christians and their brothers, the Muslims.”
“There is no room for worry at all," he said, "because the rights of all Egyptians in this nation are equal, the same rights for everyone, and they have the same obligations.”