January 7th, 2013
04:00 PM ET
By Shahira Amin, Special to CNN
Growing concerns about the rights of Egypt's Copts, who make up an estimated 12% of the population, have dampened the mood of Christians, overshadowing this year's celebrations.
"Many of my friends and relatives have left the country," said 27-year-old Beshoy Ragheb. "I would leave, too, if I had a place to go."
Threats by Muslim extremists against Coptic Christians in the past year have forced scores of Christian families to flee their homes in Dahshur and the Egyptian border town of Rafah. Meanwhile, extremist attacks on Christian churches and brutal attacks by security and military forces on Christian protesters demanding the protection of their churches in October 2011 remain vivid in the memories of many of Egypt's Christians.
Military sources, meanwhile, said Monday that Egyptian security forces had thwarted a militant attack on a church in Rafah the previous night. The would-be assailants fled after a military patrol spotted their unlicensed vehicles parked outside the town's Orthodox Christian church, which militants torched weeks after the January 2011 uprising. Soldiers found weapons in one of the vehicles and presume the escaped militants were planning to use them in their attack.
Egypt's Christians are also concerned about the country's newly drafted constitution, which was written by an Islamist-dominated assembly. Liberal opposition political forces say the charter, which passed last month after being put to a popular vote, undermines religious freedoms and does not guarantee equal rights for Copts, despite an article in the constitution that says Muslims, Christians and Jews have a right to practice their religions freely. Church members on the constituent assembly, which was elected by parliament to draft the constitution, walked out weeks before the completion of the draft document, citing concerns about articles they said "contradict the principles of citizenship."
In a recent interview with the Turkish news agency Anadolu, the newly elected Orthodox Christian patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, said that while Christians accept Article 2 of the constitution, which says the principles of Islamic Sharia law are the main source of legislation, they are worried about an article that spells out what those principles are in Islamic terms. "This new provision makes the constitution unrepresentative of the whole society," he said.
Despite the Copts' increasing fears, it's not all doom and gloom for Egypt's Christians. A new law on houses of worship is under discussion in the Shura Council - the upper house of parliament, which recently has taken over legislation until the new People's Assembly, or lower house, is elected next month. Once passed, the new legislation will allow Christians to build and renovate their churches as stipulated by the constitution, a far cry from the days of toppled President Hosni Mubarak, when building and restoring churches required a presidential decree.
Moreover, in a recent meeting with Coptic clerics, President Mohamed Morsy promised to approve a unified law on personal affairs of non-Muslims. The law, which was drafted by the late Pope Shenouda III and is now under study, would allow Egyptian Christians to refer to their own religious edicts in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, and would allow them to choose their religious clerics.
Copts however, complain of continued discrimination. "Copts were grossly underrepresented in parliament and in government under Mubarak. They continue to be discriminated against under Islamist President Mohamed Morsy, despite promises that he would be the president for all Egyptians," Coptic lawyer Nabil Ghabriel said.
The Islamist-dominated Cabinet has just one Christian woman - Nadia Zachary, who was appointed as minister of state for scientific research - and Copts continue to have little more than a token presence in the government. Moreover, Samir Morcos, the sole Coptic presidential aide, resigned in November to protest the sweeping powers that Morsy gave himself in a controversial constitutional declaration. Morcos said he was not consulted about the widely criticized declaration.
Pope Tawadros has urged political parties to place Copts, women and youth revolutionaries at the top of their electoral lists in upcoming elections in a bid to give them adequate representation in parliament. He has also proposed allocating specific constituencies for Christians - a suggestion that Islamists are likely to reject.
Addressing the Christian faithful at the traditional Christmas Eve Mass on Sunday, Tawadros asked the congregation "to pray for Egypt." But he denied that Egyptian Copts are facing a crisis, reminding Christians that sectarian incidents had sporadically occurred in the country during the three decades of Mubarak's rule.
While the pope sounded an optimistic note, saying he anticipates a better future for Egypt, many Christians attending the prayers said they did not share his optimism. "The fact that President Morsy did not attend the Mass himself, but sent a government official to represent him, is a sign that little will change," Hani Tadros, 43, said as he left the cathedral in Abbasiya after attending the prayers.
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