Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians took to the streets in the Maspero section of Cairo to protest the government’s failure to protect them from attacks on their churches. While the protests began peacefully, violence ensued after the Christians were attacked by civilians. The Egyptian military exacerbated the situation when army personnel carriers plowed through the crowds, crushing protesters as soldiers fired on unarmed civilians.
This horrifying massacre occurred on Oct. 9, 2011. What began as a peaceful protest to express frustration over attacks on Coptic churches ended in the staggering loss of innocent human life. Nearly 30 protesters died, many of them Copts, and 500 people were injured on that tragic day. The Rev. Filopater Gameel, a Coptic priest and eyewitness to the Maspero massacre, stated that “tens of thousands were devastated as they watched innocent civilians crushed and shot to death, and their only crime was participating in a peaceful march to reject the destruction of their church.”
Now, after the election of Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the Copts are terrified about their fate in Egypt. Since the Maspero attack, not one member of the Egyptian armed services has been convicted. In fact, the Egyptian panel responsible for leading the investigations closed the case because of a supposed “lack of identification of the culprits.” Even a simple YouTube search reveals how Egyptian army personnel carriers rammed into crowds of unarmed protesters during the demonstrations. Friends and relatives of the Maspero victims have vowed to continue fighting for justice and even considered taking the case to international courts.
Coptic Christians in Egypt have long suffered discrimination and violence. During a 2011 New Year's Eve service at a Coptic church in Alexandria, for instance, a bomb explosion killed more than 20 and injured 70. The brutal attacks in Alexandria and in Cairo’s Maspero section occurred shortly before the fall of the Mubarak regime and during the subsequent interim military government.
Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, succinctly described the plight of the Copts in Egypt, especially after the Arab Spring: “I think the problem is ever since the [Arab] uprising, there is still no accountability. We’ve had churches bulldozed, we’ve had churches burnt down, we’ve had Christians killed, we’ve had villages torched, and it’s almost the same as it was before. No one’s been brought to justice, no convictions, and so therefore, no justice at all.” The impunity with which the attacks against Coptic Christians were carried out is striking and deeply troubling.
The new government led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mr. Morsi now openly seeks to permanently enshrine dictatorial arrogance and blatant disregard for religious freedom in the Egyptian constitution. Mr. Morsi pushed for a speedy vote Saturday to adopt a new constitution profoundly dangerous for Egypt’s Coptic community. Groups opposed to the constitutional draft argued that the drafting Constitutional Assembly had been dominated by Mr. Morsi’s extremist allies, and the drafting process lacked transparency.
Islamist movements in Egypt certainly have dominated Egypt’s political process, and the Copts are among the main casualties. When the Islamist-dominated Constitutional Assembly drafted the constitution, they insisted on the supremacy of Egypt’s religious identity, not the nation’s joint civil identity. The new constitution can now legitimately sanction religious discrimination.
Once the constitution begins to take effect, we will witness a new era of additional repression in Egypt. The first few constitutional articles — the foundation of Egypt’s new legal framework — are especially frightening once the implications are assessed and the articles are viewed in context of one another. Article 2 maintains that Shariah, Islamic religious law, is the basis of legislation. Religious freedom analysts have argued that Article 3 essentially sends Egyptian society to a pre-modern system where non-Muslims were extended a limited degree of state protection but were relegated to second-class citizenry in public life. Additionally, Article 4 gives a non-elected, sectarian body, not the Egyptian parliament, arbitration rights to decide how Shariah and current and subsequent legislation should be implemented for all Egyptian citizens.
Furthermore, Article 219 reaffirms that Islamists monopolized the constitutional drafting. Language within this article is unprecedented for Egypt. The article requires that the law be measured for consistency with legal principles found in Sunni Islamic law.
Religious life, as a whole, is under grave threat in Egypt. Article 43 severely limits the freedom of religion and permits only the “heavenly religions” of Islam, Judaism and Christianity to build houses of worship. The Egyptian Baha’is, for instance, and other groups not recognized as “heavenly religions,” would not have freedom of religion or even the freedom to worship.
The legal framework that should ensure equality for all Egyptian society is severely compromised in this new constitution. The United States, and the Obama administration in particular, must undertake every effort to side with the principles of religious freedom for all and underscore the importance of religious pluralism. Unless this happens, Egypt may be completely swallowed up by an Islamist dictatorship as a result of this constitution, and the Coptic Christians and other religious groups will be in extreme peril under a Morsi regime.
Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, is co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus.