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Constituent Assembly to limit freedom of religion

Members: freedom of belief is unlimited, freedom of practice in Egypt should be limited to the “three heavenly faiths"

Ahead of the Constituent Assembly’s Tuesday meeting to discuss presidential powers, members of the assembly have found themselves mired in controversy over decisions to deny religious freedom to citizens who do not practice Christianity, Judaism or Sunni Islam.

Although freedom of belief is unlimited, freedom of practice in Egypt should be limited to the “three heavenly faiths,” constituent assembly members of the Rights and Freedoms Committee noted last week.

After a break on Sunday, the assembly tasked with writing the new constitution is set to resume its meetings on Monday when it will consider suggestions made by revolutionary and youth groups to the assembly’s Suggestions and Dialogue Committee.

The full assembly will meet on Tuesday to vote on the final system of governance in the constitution after listening to the System of Governance Committee’s report.

The committee has been extensively discussing presidential powers in the new constitution and looks set to limit them.

Members have suggested removing the president’s ability to dissolve parliament, or at least limit it to only doing so following a popular referendum on the matter.

The System of Governance Committee split into four sub-committees on Wednesday, each looking into different presidential powers in relation to the legislator, judiciary, local governance and national security, said the
assembly secretary general Amr Derag.

The sub-committees will also outline the relationships between the presidency, parliament, and the cabinet.

The committee agreed to remove the president’s right to appoint ten members of parliament’s lower house, the People’s Assembly, and a third of its upper house, the Shura Council.

Of the 15 members of the Rights and Freedoms Committee who considered the freedom of religion clause, only two, Manal El-Tiby, a Nubian human rights activist, and Bishop John Paul Qaltah, the deputy chairman of the International Council of Churches for Catholics, argued against the clause.

Regardless, the Islamist-dominated committee voted in favour of the clause.

The clause would mean that Shias and Baha’is would not be able to practice their religions in public or build places of worship.

The committee has now completed discussions on eight of the 17 clauses in the rights and freedoms section of the constitution.

The committee had further disagreements when El-Tiby insisted on using the phrase “racial origins” in one of the constitutional clauses while the other members disagreed, with some members claiming there is only one race in Egypt and as such the phrase was not needed.

El-Tiby argued that the phrase is present in most constitutions around the world and that it was necessary to prevent all forms of racial prejudice.

She said in a statement that she is having discussions with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, as well as figures from the Salafist Nour Party over the matter but she is unsure if it will be resolved within the committee or in a general meeting of the assembly.

The debate over freedoms and especially religious ones comes at a time when the assembly at large is debating article two of the constitution, concerning Sharia law.

The article stipulates that “The principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation” but several Salafist figures want to remove the word “principles”.

The Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Ali Gomaa, appealed to representatives of Salafist parties to keep the word principles in as removing it would lead to “Fights between one hundred sects over every little interpretation.”

Salafists are reportedly convinced but now want to add a reference to the four main schools of Islamic thought in the constitution.

The assembly is also set to add a clause stipulating that Al-Azhar would act as the final reference regarding all matters of Islamic interpretation as well as ensuring it achieves complete independence from the state.

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