New constitution imperils Egypt’s Christians

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi apologized in December for “mistakes” in rushing the country’s new constitution to ratification, and said he would “bear responsibility” for them. But he has offered no plan for fixing the document, which retains its Islamist goals and enshrines Shariah law while depriving Christians and other religious minorities of constitutional protections.

Now Egypt’s Coptic Christians fear increased persecution as a “Muslim Brotherhood era” takes root in Egypt and spreads across the Middle East.

“There are dangerous articles in this constitution,” Coptic patriarch Pope Tawadros II told The Christian Post on Jan. 10.

Although Egypt’s constitution passed with more than 70 percent of the vote after its second referendum on Dec. 22, many citizens protested the rushed ratification process for such a profoundly Islamic document. Gangs of men loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood reacted swiftly to put down the protests. YouTube videos captured the anguished cries of beaten, bloody protesters as they tried vainly to repel the gangs of Islamist thugs who attacked them in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, shouting, “Islamic law is fundamental in Egypt!”

Emboldened by their new constitution, Muslim Brotherhood members reportedly are raping Coptic women on the streets and using military tactics to intimidate protesters. Two women wearing niqabs cut off the hair of two Christian women on Cairo’s subway on Dec. 11, according to the Egypt Independent, which described the attack as the third such incident in two months.

A diverse team of Islamists, secularists, Christians and other minorities was supposed to craft Egypt’s constitution together. Most of them resigned in protest over Islamist domination of the process. The remaining Islamists hastily finished the constitution in an overnight session on Nov. 30. The next day, Mr. Morsi issued an executive order calling for a national referendum on a document Egyptians barely had time to read.

This new constitution imposes a more Islamic system of governance on Egypt, according to the National Salvation Front, Egypt’s opposition umbrella group. It emphasizes specific tenets of Shariah law and declares that Al-Azhar University, an ancient Islamic institution in Cairo, will serve as sole interpreter of that law. It also gives greater powers to the president, who had already granted himself sweeping executive, judicial and legislative powers in a Nov. 22 decree.

Since then, Egypt has increasingly split into two factions: Islamists, and everyone else.

“A lot of the people who thought he was too soft — like the Salafists — are now going with Morsi,” said Raymond Ibrahim, a fellow with the David Horowitz Institute. “All they care about is one thing: Shariah.”

Most versions of Shariah law forbid Muslims to convert to other religions. In some interpretations, the penalty for such apostasy is death. Jews and Christians receive “dhimmi” status, under which they must pay a special citizenship tax. Mr. Ibrahim expects religious minorites will soon face a new blasphemy code, as well. Seventeen Coptic Christians have already been arrested for various forms of blasphemy, he said. Some received six-year prison sentences.

December’s referendum is more likely to affect Copts than Egypt’s secularists, Mr. Ibrahim said, because secularists can hide more easily. Coptic garb, crosses and churches compromise their anonymity. Their persecution will only deepen under Shariah law.

“The Muslim Brotherhood will control Egypt, will continue persecution, will control elections for Parliament, will control everything,” said Magdi Khalil, a Coptic political analyst and executive editor of Watani International, a weekly newspaper published in Cairo.

Mr. Ibrahim and Mr. Khalil both think Egypt is likely to descend into civil war. They said anti-government protests are not going to stop — especially now that the new constitution has passed. The Muslim Brotherhood will continue using force to try to stamp out the opposition. The streets will be filled with demonstrators, blood and violence. But without support, Mr. Khalil says, the opposition will weaken.

If the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi succeed in silencing dissent and retain control of Egypt, it could have significant implications for the entire region. Mr. Khalil believes it will usher in a “Muslim Brotherhood era” in the Middle East. The Brotherhood already has a foothold in Jordan, Syria, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. Egypt would make a perfect kingpin.

“All these guys have one and the same agenda: the establishment of Shariah law, which is Draconian and medieval,” said Mr. Ibrahim. He believes the Brotherhood would strive to build an Islamic caliphate obligated to attack any non-Muslim state. The implications for relations with Israel and the West are worrisome.

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