Coptic Catholic Bishops in Egypt have hailed the result of the referendum on the country's new constitution which they say represents a crucial step towards religious freedom and other civil liberties.
In interviews with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishops Kyrillos William of Assiut, Upper Egypt, Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza and Joannes Zakaria of Luxor all spoke of their delight at last week's vote, which officials say showed a 98 per cent 'yes' vote for the new constitution, drafted under the country's interim regime.
Speaking from Egypt, the bishops said that such an overwhelming majority result gave the government a clear mandate to act in accordance with the constitution's precepts, which are seen as centring on the principle of freedom for all – regardless of race, religion, gender and age.
The bishops highlighted the contrast between the new constitution and its predecessor, ratified in December 2012 under the ousted President Mohammed Morsi, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was seen to assert the rights of Muslims at the expense of others.
The bishops also pointed to the new constitution's emphasis on women, children and disabled people, whose rights they said were largely absent from the former constitution.
The bishops also said the rights of Christians were well represented in the new constitution.
Both Bishops William and Zakaria cited extracts from the constitution highlighting the priority need for new legislation governing the construction of churches, a process which until now has been very slow and cumbersome for Coptic leaders.
The constitution paves the way for the election of a new parliament and a new government and the bishops said that once the changes were in place they hoped the new regime would press forward with the recommended legislation on church construction.
The bishops said there was overwhelming public support in Egypt for religious freedom.
They said this was self-evident in the referendum result which showed 20 million voted 'yes' to the new constitution, far higher than the previous one where the turn-out was lower and only 64 percent were in favour.
The Muslim Brotherhood urged its supporters to abstain from last week's vote and, in response to fears that the MB may now react with violence, the bishops said the Islamists were now no longer able to resist the momentum for change and freedom.
Reflecting on the result, Bishop Zakaria said: "I think we are about to start a new future and a new life. Before the referendum, I spoke to my people in the Masses that I celebrated and asked them to vote.
"I said that I would be the first one to go and vote for this constitution. It is a very important moment for the future of Egypt. When I went to vote, the place was crowded – and a lot of women took part – and this was not just the case in Luxor but in the whole of the country."
Saying "we are very, very happy about the constitution result", Bishop William said: "When the result came through, there was singing and dancing for joy."
"Those who put together the constitution tried to think about all the categories – especially the women, the kids and the other religious groups."
Bishop Aziz Mina was on the commission responsible for drafting the constitution.
Describing his pleasant surprise at the near unanimous 'yes' vote, he said: "I am very pleased with the result. It is a good result for moderate Copts and for others. This is a constitution which, when it is applied by law, will give equal rights to all the religions – Christians and others.
"This constitution unifies all Egyptians. It is a good constitution because it mentions every Egyptian – including women, children and all the religious groups."
The bishop also highlighted a chapter in the constitution about Egypt's culture, saying that it specifically makes reference to the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic periods, until now largely overlooked by Islamists whose sole interest is the Islamic era from the 7th century onwards.