Egyptian Christians will soon have a law to regulate church building. But this is only one achievement celebrated by Copts in the revised national charter scrubbed of most of its Islamist tinge.
"Christians have freedom of belief and practice," said Safwat al-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt and a member of the constitutional committee. "And for the first time in the history of Egypt's constitutions, building churches becomes a right."
Article 235 of the new draft constitution addressed this longstanding complaint, where permission to build or repair required presidential and security authorization.
Egypt's constitution of 2012, written by an Islamist majority under the now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi, also provided for many personal and religious freedoms. But that text included clauses of limitation "according to shari'ah law."
Negotiations with the ultraconservative Salafi Muslim Nour Party, which supported the ouster of Morsi, assured the preservation of Article 2 declaring the principles of shari'ah to be the primary source for legislation.
The new version, however, specifies the Supreme Constitutional Court's right of interpretation. It also eliminated the advisory role given to al-Azhar, Egypt's highest institution of Islamic scholarship, along with an additional article interpreting shari'ah along traditional religious lines.
Amnesty International welcomed the new draft, though it criticized both its shortcomings and the contrary practices of the current government.
"A better constitutional text, and rights enshrined on paper, is a much needed first step," declared its statement. "Unfortunately there is a glaring inconsistency between the aspirations in the draft, and the reality of ongoing human rights violations in Egypt."
One example of lingering shortcomings in the draft, Article 64, limits the right of religious practice to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism alone. And Article 3, preserved from 2012, grants Christians the use of their religious law in family matters, yielding application to an unelected church hierarchy.
But Article 93 gives force of law to all international human rights agreements ratified by Egypt, and Articles 11, 243, and 244 demands the law establish "appropriate representation" in parliament for certain underrepresented sectors of society, including women and Coptic Christians.
Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II has endorsed the new constitution, urging a "yes" vote in the upcoming public referendum to be held in early to mid-January.
"We are satisfied," said Baiady. "The constitution covers all of what the people expected."
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