NEW YORK -- At the start of the two-day referendum on the new Egyptian constitution in Cairo today, Bishop Kyrillos William Samaa, the Catholic Coptic ordinary of Assiut, came out in favor of accepting the draft.
He told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that "the text is without doubt an improvement on what applied under the Muslim Brotherhood." "I can only urge the Christians very strongly to accept the draft. If the constitution is really taken seriously then the situation of Christians in Egypt will improve considerably," the prelate said.
Bishop Kyrillos stressed that the text takes account of all the groups in Egyptian society, "which was not the case in constitution [put forth by ousted President Mohammed Morsi]." Egypt's Christian community, he continued is very happy with the new text. Christian media have been overwhelmingly in favor of accepting the draft.
According to the bishop, the fact that Article 2 of the revised Constitution holds that Islamic law would still be the source of Egyptian legislation is not a problem. "This has been the case in Egypt for a long time. Even before Morsi. It never did us Christians any harm," he said, adding that "what is more important is that the new Article 3 guarantees Christians and Jews autonomy in matters regarding civil status and internal Church affairs."
Bishop Samaa also expressed his confidence as regards the construction of churches, which has to-date been subject to highly restrictive permission procedures. "The constitution guarantees the so-called celestial religions, i.e. Muslims, Christians and Jews, the same right to build places of divine worship. It also envisages that the new Parliament will regulate the details at its first session. I hope that we Christians will then be free at last to build and renovate churches."
In early December 2013 a five-member committee was appointed to revise the constitution that had been adopted under President Morsi; the committee then submitted the draft to interim President Adli Mansour. Representatives of the country's Churches were involved in the review and redrafting process, including Coptic Catholic Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Giseh, whose Church has some 250,000 adherents.
Egyptian citizens living abroad were able to cast their votes in a referendum on the new constitution until Jan. 12, 2014. Today and tomorrow, 51 million eligible voters resident in Egypt will go to the ballot box. The Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the referendum, calling it illegal.
Voter turnout in Egypt is usually very low. Just 33 percent of eligible voters cast a vote on the constitution drawn up under former President Morsi. Observers say the level of turnout will be an indication of the country's mood with regard to the interim government installed by the Egyptian armed forces, which deposed President Morsi on July 3, 2013. The interim government has announced that a parliamentary and presidential vote will follow the referendum on the constitution, but officials have thus far been vague in terms of a sequence or timetable.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org