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Constitutional Position of Islam Questioned in Egypt


CAIRO (IPS) -- Another constitutional debate has erupted this month after a number of academics and rights activists called for the amendment of Article 2 of the national charter that defines a role for Islam.

The Article states that "Islam is the religion of the state" and that "Islamic Law constitutes the principle source of legislation."

Critics of the amendment proposal say the demand will only serve to inflame passions between the country's minority Christian community and its Muslim majority.

Safwat el-Sherif, head of the Shura Council (the consultative house of parliament), said that diluting the role of Islam in the constitution "would only lead to sectarian strife" between Muslims and Christians.

"Islam is the religion of the state, but that doesn't mean that it is forced on non-Muslims," El-Sherif said in on state television.

Constitutional issues have been at the forefront of public debate since December, when President Hosni Mubarak called for the amendment of 34 articles of the national charter. While Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has portrayed the move as marking "a new era of political reform," most opposition figures say the proposed changes will only further cement the NDP's grip on political authority.

The articles up for amendment cover a number of contentious issues, ranging from the limits of presidential authority, judicial supervision of the electoral process, to anti-terror legislation. Article 2, however, is not on the list of proposed changes.

The role of Islamic Law as "a main source" of legislation has been stipulated in Egypt's constitution throughout modern history. In 1980, however, former president Anwar Sadat -- while also changing the article governing presidential term limits -- altered the text to "the main source of legislation."

Now a handful of liberal reformers are calling for the relevant article to be changed, saying it has led to a policy of official discrimination against non-Muslim citizens.

In early March, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHR) sent a petition to the office of the President stating that the current text of Article 2 had resulted in "court rulings denying citizens their right to embrace their adopted beliefs".

The document signed by more than 100 writers, academics, rights activists and "intellectuals" went on to state that Article 2 had been used "to create and spread an atmosphere of extremism" to the detriment of personal, scientific and artistic freedoms.

According to the petitioners, the article has also been used to justify an "overwhelming encroachment of religious formalities on all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life." Educational curricula and state-owned media, they stated, have become "principal sources for propagating religious extremism."

In closing, signatories expressed hopes of "stopping the homeland from sliding into ruptures along confessional lines and religious extremism like those breaking up certain neighbouring countries."

The CIHR has not been the only organisation to call for the dilution, or even the elimination, of Islam's constitutional role.

A handful of small associations claiming to represent expatriate Coptic Christians in Europe and North America have also alleged that Article II has contributed to an official bias against Christians in Egypt.

"The state's declaration that Islam is the official religion represents a violation and humiliation against other religions, especially Coptic Christians," the Geneva-based Copts United proclaimed recently on its website, "and will ultimately prevent Copts from enjoying their full political and civil rights."

But despite frequent accusations by such groups of persecution and official discrimination, the Coptic Church in Egypt has roundly rejected the notion of amending the constitutional article in question.

Coptic Church head Pope Shenouda III warned followers last month that pushing for the amendment of Article 2 would only "result in agitating Egyptian Muslims." According to the independent weekly Al-Dustour, Shenouda removed the bishop of a major diocese in Cairo from his position as church spokesman after he publicly contradicted the church's official position on the subject.

Coptic Christians -- Egypt's oldest and largest Christian denomination -- are estimated to represent roughly 10 percent of the population, although the figure is widely disputed. The rest of the country of 70 million is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.

Meanwhile, spokesmen for the country's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, have also criticised calls for a reformulation of the article.

"Islamic law has been applied to transactions and individual relationships since the introduction of Islam into Egypt," Brotherhood MP Ahmed Abu Baraka said. "The reference to Islamic law in the current constitution was hardly an innovation -- it was preceded in this by the earlier charters of 1923 and 1964."

Those advocating a rewording of Article 2, however, say their primary objection is to Islamic Law representing the only source of legislation.

"Islamic law should be one of many sources of legislation, not its single source," Hossam Bahgat, chairman of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a signatory to the CIHR petition told IPS. "I stand for a civil state for all citizens and therefore request the impartiality of the state in terms of citizens' religious beliefs."

According to Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the state-run al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the current focus on Article 2 has served to divert attention from more pressing constitutional issues.

"While talking about Article 2, which isn't even being considered for amendment, most of them are ignoring the real problems," Rashwan told IPS. "Why don't they call for the amendment of Article 77, which puts no term limits on the presidency and which adversely effects the rights of all Egyptians?"

Rashwan added: "It's also strange they're calling for the change on behalf of Coptic rights when Pope Shenouda himself -- along with most other Christian denominations -- has already rejected the idea."

Source: International Press Service

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