Freedom of belief stirs controversy in constitutional debate

Controversy erupted Sunday during the Constituent Assembly’s discussion of an article on the freedom of faith and worship, which was handled in a session attended by a number of intellectuals and artists.

Article 8 of the Rights, Freedoms and Duties section of the constitution draft put together by the assembly stipulates that the “freedom of belief and worship is preserved, and the state protects the freedom of establishing places of worship, in the way defined by the law and in line with public order.”

In the outgoing constitution, freedom of belief was a standalone article that read, “The state guarantees freedom of belief and the free practice of religious rites.” Meanwhile, there was no allocation to the right to build places of worship, an issue that proved contentious as many sectarian clashes erupted over Copts’ right to build churches.

During the discussions, author Salah Eissa stressed the need to separate between the freedom of belief and the freedom of worship, so that freedom of belief would not be interpreted as something regulated by the law. He predicted the article would be a subject of dispute when offered to the public.

Actor Mahmoud Yassin supported Eissa’s argument, saying that the practice of religious rites should not be regulated by a law.

The head of the Constituent Assembly’s Rights and Freedoms Committee, Edward Ghaleb, noted that the phrase “in line with public order” would be removed for being too loose.

During the session, Culture Minister Saber Arab brought up a number of questions, such as whether any group would have the right to practice its rituals in its own places of worship, whether the right of worship would be limited to followers of “heavenly” faiths, and whether the law would entitle certain religious sects, such as Shias, to build places of worship.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohamed Mahsoub, a rapporteur for the assembly’s Wording Committee, said all countries’ constitutions guarantee unrestrained freedom of belief, while some documents place restrictions on the practice of some rituals, which he said is also suggested by some committee members.

Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm

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