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Religious freedom under threat from Morsi's government

Egyptians are reeling from anti-Semitic remarks the president made in 2010, as well as renewed violence against Copts and a problematic draft constitution.
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Newly elected leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian, Pope Tawadros II, Head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, leads the Coptic Christmas midnight mass at the al-Abasseya Cathedral in Cairo late on January 6, 2013. Copts of Egypt celebrate their first Christmas since the country has been ruled by Islamists in a climate of concern. (HALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Concern is rising in Egypt over threats to religious freedom and renewed violence in Coptic Christian communities.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood-authored draft of Egypt's new constitution removed a significant amount of protections for non-Muslims just as anti-Semitic remarks by President Mohammed Morsi have came to light.

Protests by Muslims against Coptic Christians broke out again today after a Christian was accused of molesting a young girl.

Police fired tear gas into a crowd of demonstrators in the town of Marashda after four shops were torched overnight, according to the Associated Press. Residents also reported protesters throwing stones at the local church after Islamic prayers. 

The news isn't exactly surprising, as Christians and Muslims have always had a tenuous relationship in Egypt, especially post-Mubarak, who was relatively moderate in terms of religious tolerance.

But concerns over religious freedom haven't been quelled by the draft of the new constitution, which many see as hard-line Islamic extremism.

‘‘Egypt is stepping into 2013 split and divided between Copts and moderate Muslims on one side confronting political Islam and fundamentalists on the other side,’’ Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Egypt’s main Coptic newspaper, Watani, said to the AP. 

More from GlobalPost: Egypt's constitution vote divides the country

Many international observers, including the Obama administration, are also nervous for what the future holds in Egypt after a video surfaced in which Morsi referred to Jews as "apes" and "pigs." 

Morsi's remarks, which he made in a TV interview in 2010 and which were reported by the New York Times earlier this week haven't helped diffuse the situation either. 

He called Zionists "bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs" and said Egyptians should "nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred."

Statements were issued this week by Morsi's office in an attempt to put out the fire by insisting the president is looking to further the cause of religious tolerance in Egypt, reported Reuters. Morsi insisted he is opposed to "all forms of discrimination and incitement to violence or hostility on the basis of religion." 

However, Christians aren't convinced.

Copts make up about 10 percent of the country's population, and they are reportedly very uneasy about the wording of the new constitution and Morsi himself, who many fear will not protect their rights to practice their religion freely. Christians walked away from writing the draft constitution in protest, and were not invited back.

“Our only hope was a constitution that would recognize Egypt as a secular state and safeguard our rights as non-Muslims,” said Kamal Zakher, a Coptic writer, to the Globe and Mail earlier this month. “Now that battle is lost.” 

Changes to the constitution, such as Article 212 (which gives control over the church to Islamists), and Article 43 (which gives only Muslims, Jews and Christians the ability to build houses of worship), as well as Article 44, an anti-blasphemy clause, are clearly cause for alarm.  

More from GlobalPost: 5 human rights issues Egypt must address

"While the draft is problematic on numerous counts, those articles that pertain to religious freedom and the protection and rights of minorities merit separate concern," wrote religious freedom scholar Samuel Tadros in the National Review. "The Islamist influence is readily apparent when these articles are compared to the corresponding provisions of the 1971 constitution which governed Egypt under Mubarak." 

The Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's political party, has been traditionally intolerant of both Christians and Jews, and the great fear that Morsi would move Egypt toward Islamic fundamentalism hasn't abated – and won't.

Isolated incidents over the last two years since Morsi has taken office, such as the recent sentencing of an entire family to 15 years in prison for identity theft after a mother attempted to convert to Christianity from Islam, as well as rioting in Coptic villages, are starting to add up. Many still remember a 2011 bombing at a church in Alexandria that left 23 Copts dead, and a spate of fires and riots against Christians in the months that followed. 

"During the reign of Mubarak and the [military rulers], mainly Christians were facing problems, but now with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, each and every moderate Egyptian is facing problems," said Amir Ramzy, a Coptic Christian and a judge in Cairo’s court of appeals, to the AP.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/rights/religious-freedom-under-threat-morsis-government

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