Pope Tawadros II, Egypt's New Coptic Leader, Opposes Religious Constitution


Pope Tawadros Ii

CAIRO -- Egypt's new Coptic pope said Monday the constitution now being drafted will not be acceptable if it is overtly religious, a sign he would campaign with his Christian minority and secular groups against increasing Islam's role in the new charter.

In an interview aired Monday, a day after he was selected patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II said the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak last year has opened the way for a larger Coptic public role.

He said as pope, he will encourage the Christian community to participate more in political and public life, as well as elections. He charged that the country's Christian minority has been "intentionally" marginalized for years.

"After tens of years of marginalization and fake democracy, this has made some Copts isolated," he said in the interview aired on the private TV station ONTV.

"This is changing bit by bit, and it will take time. It needs encouraging, and so long as society is fair, and democracy is built fairly, you will see participation."

Tawadros said Egypt's richness lies in its cultural mix between Muslims and Christians.

Tawadros appeared to addressing his wary community about the rising political power of Islamists. A series of violent attacks on churches and a crackdown on freedom of worship and expression have caused them to worry about their future.

The election of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi heightened fears among the Copts that their rights might be curtailed. The fears have been further fueled by the process of writing a new constitution, which is dominated by Islamist groups seeking to increase the role of Islam in legislation.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has said the constitution must be based on Islamic Shariah law, though that statement is open to different interpretations. Tawadros said the country's new constitution, being drafted by a panel led by Islamists, will not be acceptable if it is too religious. He said religious laws have no place in the constitution.

"The constitution is for us all to live together, a common life, we need each other. This is the constitution that will bring us together," he said. "Any additions or hints that make the constitution religious will not be acceptable, not only to Copts but to many sectors in society."

Tawadros called on Morsi to reassure the Copts because of what he said were repeated messages through the media or in public that have constituted "threats" or "disrespect" to the community. He called them "unacceptable."

Tawadros didn't name specific incidents, but there have been increasing reports of crackdowns against Christian places of worship. Court cases were recently filed against Christians accused of insulting Islam, and villagers have reported they were denied access to their place of worship.

Egypt's Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the state and the country's Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims have occasionally broken out, sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.

Tawadros succeeded Pope Shenouda III, a charismatic leader who died in March after four decades at the head of the Coptic Church.

The new pope takes office during a shift in Christian attitudes on their relation to the state. For years, Christians largely relied on the Church to secure some protection for their rights, using Shenouda's close relationship with Mubarak.

With Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising last year and Shenouda's death, many have been emboldened to act beyond the Church's hold and participate more directly in the nation's politics to demand rights, better representation and freedom of worship.

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