Egyptian religious minorities fear rise of Islamists

Amid sectarian clashes and uncertainty about their future, religious minority leaders are expressing concern about the possibility of certain Islamic groups rising to power and writing a new constitution that does not protect minority rights.

“Such concern is normal, given that the Muslim Brotherhood believes that democracy means majority,” said Ahmed Samih, director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. “But just rule treats all society equally and respects freedom of faith.”

Minority groups like the Baha'i and the Shia fear that an Islamic government would persecute them more than the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

"My fear of the Muslim Brotherhood stems from my being Egyptian and not Shia,” said Ahmed al-Nafis, a Shia leader. “We heard one of its leaders saying the group would apply the Islamic Sharia in full.

"The Brotherhood does not have clear jurisprudence,” he added. “It likes to pick certain texts that serve a particular situation or even the very mood of its general guide.”

Nafis said the only solution is to have a secular state and a constitution that does not set an official state religion.

“The Shia have the right to form a political party, as there is no equal power-sharing for all religious sects,” he said.

The 1971 Constitution, which was repealed after the 25 January revolution, stated that Islam is the official religion of the state, and that the Islamic Law is the main source of legislation.

Although there are no official statistics about the number of Shia in Egypt, news reports estimate they number about 750,000 among the country’s tens of millions of Sunni Muslims. Some were banned from traveling and repeatedly arrested by the security services of the former regime.

The Salafis, a religious sect that has been at the center of several recent religious clashes in Egypt, are against the Shia establishing a political party or engaging in any political activity. Salafis accuse them of being financed by Iran to spread the Shia doctrine in Egypt, where the majority is Sunni.

Under the former regime, the Shia claimed that they were marginalized and accused of being subservient to Iran, and that the regime used the Salafis to distort their image.

Basma Moussa, a spokeswoman for the Baha'i community that was formed in Egypt in the 19th century, opined that an Islamic government would not likely be fair to religious minorities.

“Their statements indicate so,” she said, criticizing the media for highlighting certain religious trends and ignoring others that might better adopt the principles of human rights.

The Baha'is were not officially recognized under former Egyptian regimes, and thus were not included in censuses, but according to press reports, the last official count of 1950 estimated the community had 5000 members.

For his part, Hossam Tammam, a researcher in religious affairs, suggested that the law recognize religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism so that all Egyptians may claim the right of citizenship.

Muslims constitute an estimated 85 percent of Egyptians, Christians about 10 percent, while minorities such as Baha’is and Jews make up the remaining five percent.

The Religious Freedom Report that was issued by the US State Department earlier this month put Egypt on a black list due to the sectarian violence that has recently erupted between Muslims and Coptic Christians, and due to the fact that the government does not acknowledge certain religious minorities on ID cards and other official documents.

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