Crisis tests Egyptian constitution

By December 3, 2012

Egypt (MNN) — Egypt has a new draft constitution, but it didn't come about the way people hoped.

On Friday, in a 16-hour vote, Islamists approved the charter without the participation of liberal and Christian members. The move essentially pre-empted a court ruling that could dissolve the constituent assembly, but it also inflamed the conflict between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.

The draft still faces a national vote in the next 30 days. If it remains unchanged, human rights experts say Muslim clerics could bring restrictions on freedom of speech, women's rights, and other liberties.

Secular and Christian leaders complained that hardline Islamists were determined to draft a constitution heavily influenced by Sharia law. In frustration, at least 20 members of the constitutional assembly had resigned in protest by early November.

Without dissenting opinion, the Islamists included what they wanted. By the time the vote rolled around, television footage of Parliament's chamber showed that of the 85 members in attendance, not a single Christian was present and there were only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives.

It is against this backdrop that the new Coptic Pope Anba Tawadros, takes up the leadership staff.

His is a term where Christians have faced increasing pressured since the January 2011 revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. There's been a corresponding rise in anti-Christian violence, and Christians now wonder what their role is. Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, says, "Christians in Egypt are concerned because the government really seems to be moving against them, and there are not a lot of positive signs where they would feel protected or they would feel like there's going to be more freedom for Christians in Egypt; it seems like it's going in the other direction."

Pope Tawadros immediately made it clear that his focus was not the political arena. Nettleton explains, "He has talked about focusing on the Church and Christianity rather than focusing on what the government is doing. We'll see what that means to him over the coming weeks and months as we see how he responds."

However, with no input from the Christian community in the country's constitution, people are looking to Pope Tawadros for guidance since he's the voice and face of the Coptic Church in Egypt. Given what's at stake, says Nettleton, expectations are high. "They hope that he will be a voice that says ‘Christians have a place in Egyptian society. Christians deserve protection.They deserve the freedom to worship without fear for their lives'."

That begs another question: will the pope change his approach given the circumstances unfolding in Egypt over the last 10 days? What will be his level of representation on behalf of the Christians in front of the state? The pursuit of a secular state would benefit Christians more than a religious one, since that's the direction they're headed in now.

Concerns over the lack of representation in the draft constitution surface as the reality of religious freedom issues emerges. Nettleton notes, across all age groups in the Egyptian Church, "The biggest concern is probably what the place of the Christians is going to be in Egyptian society under the new government. Are they going to be a protected minority that is allowed to exist and allowed to worship and allowed to meet together? Or are they going to be pressured to disappear?"

Pope Tawadros is expected to continue encouraging Christians to step by themselves into the political arena and take things in their own hands. To do that, he will need to stop doing it for them. This will be a time for growth amongst followers of Christ in Egypt.

Although the news of the charter was dismaying, it's not even close to the final chapter. In fact, it may be the beginning of a new one. Hardship is a unique crucible for the Gospel. Nettleton sums it up this way: "They [Christians] can be an incredible witness for Christ because the ability to forgive and the ability to love those who are persecuting us: there is not a human explanation for that. It can only be a supernatural explanation that God and the Holy Spirit have empowered us to be able to live that way."


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