Egyptian Christians say Islamist intimidation kept them from polls

ASSIUT, Egypt — A campaign of intimidation by Islamists left most Christians in this southern province too afraid to participate in last week’s referendum on an Islamist-drafted constitution they deeply oppose, residents say.

The disenfranchisement is increasing Christians’ worries over their future under empowered Muslim conservatives.

About a week before the vote, some 50,000 Islamists marched through Assiut chanting that Egypt will be ‘‘Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.’’ At their head rode several bearded men on horseback with swords in scabbards, evoking images of early Muslims conquering Christian Egypt in the seventh century.


They made sure to go through mainly Christian districts of the city, where residents, fearing attacks, shut their stores and stayed in their homes, witnesses said.

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The day of the voting on Saturday, Christian voting was minimal — as low as seven percent in some areas, according to church officials. Some of those who did try to head to polling stations in some villages were pelted by stones, forcing them to turn back without casting ballots, Christian activists and residents said this week.

On Wednesday, Zaghloul el-Balshi, a top official overseeing the contentious referendum, resigned, citing health problems, a judicial official said, in what critics saw as another blow to the legitimacy of the process.

The resignation comes amid allegations of vote irregularities and follows boycotts of the referendum judges and others leaving the voting with a shortage of monitors to oversee it.

Christian activists now see what happened in Assiut as a barometer for what Christians’ status will be under a constitution that enshrines a greater role for Shariah, or Islamic law, in government and daily life.


Even under the secular regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Christians complained of discrimination and government failure to protect them and their rights. They fear it will be worse with the Islamists who have dominated Egypt’s political landscape since Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.

‘‘When all issues become religious and all the talk is about championing Islam and its prophet, then, as a Christian, I am excluded from societal participation,’’ said Shady Magdy Tobia, an activist in Assiut. ‘‘If this does not change, things will only get worse.’’

Some Christians of Assiut are pushing back against the Islamists. In recent weeks, young Christians joined growing street protests to demand that the charter is shelved.

Assiut Province is significant because it is home to one of Egypt’s largest Christian communities — they make up about 35 percent of the population of 4.5 million, perhaps three times the nationwide percentage. At the same time, it is a major stronghold of Egypt’s Islamists, who now dominate its local government. The province was the birthplace of some of the country’s most radical Islamist groups and was the main battlefield of an insurgency by Muslim militants in the 1990s.

It was one of 10 provinces that voted in the first round. Nationwide, around 56 percent voted in favor of the draft charter, according to preliminary results. Assiut had one of the strongest ‘‘yes’’ votes at more than 77 percent. It also had a turnout of only 28 percent — one of the lowest in a round marred by a low participation of only 32 percent nationwide.


The second and final round will be held the coming Saturday in 17 provinces.

Rights groups reported attempts at suppression of the ‘‘no’’ vote in many parts of the country. But Christians say intimidation and suppression are more effective in this smaller, largely rural province.

‘‘In Assiut, we face more danger than in Cairo,’’ said Emad Awny Ramzy, an organizer of protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. ‘‘Here they can easily identify, monitor, and attack us.’’

A senior figure of the Gamaa Islamiya — which has renounced violence and is allied to Morsi’s government — dismissed the Christians’ allegations of intimidation.

The claims are ‘‘just lies and rumors that surface every time we have an election,’’ Assem Abdel-Magued said.