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CAIRO (Reuters) - Many Egyptian Christians say they voted on Saturday to reject proposed constitutional amendments in a referendum because they fear hasty elections to follow may open the door for Islamist groups to rise to power.
If the amendments are approved, parliamentary elections will take place in late September followed by presidential elections in December, giving scant time for new parties to organise, including ones representing the aspirations of Christians.
Foremost among these aspirations is the creation of a civil state where religion is not a basis for legislation.
It is widely assumed that quick elections would give an advantage to the well-established Muslim Brotherhood, a group founded in the 1920s which has emerged as the best organised political force since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power.
"I fear the Islamists because they speak in civil slogans that have a religious context, like when one said he believed in a civil Egypt but at the same time no woman or Copt should run for president," said Samuel Wahba, a Coptic doctor.
The Islamist group has always sought to reassure Copts, who make up about 10 percent of 80 million citizens, saying they have the same rights as other Egyptians. But they have also historically opposed the idea of a Copt assuming the presidency.
Coptic Christians also want the new constitution to do away with Article 2, which says Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic jurisprudence the main source of legislation -- a point of tension with Islamists.
"I voted 'no', because I don't want to return to the old constitution or a patchwork of the old constitution and a tyrannical president after such a great revolution," Wahba said.
Some church leaders have advised their congregations to reject the amendments as a patriotic effort to support pro-democracy Egyptians who seek a civil state.
"I see we should say 'no', because such amendments are not valid to build a modern civil state. That isn't our opinion alone but also that of any moderate Egyptian who wants a civil state," said Father Metyas, a priest in a Coptic Orthodox Church.
"Anyone is free in one's opinion, but our role as those responsible for enlightenment is to tell people that these amendments serve the Brotherhood's ideology," he said.
Egyptians took pride in the Christian-Muslim solidarity displayed during the revolution that toppled Mubarak on February 11 and hoped the uprising had buried tensions that have flared up with increasing regularity in recent years.
But these feelings were dampened in March after an interfaith romance sparked the torching of a church by Islamists, which led to sectarian clashes leaving 13 people killed.
Copts staged an unprecedented sit-in for nine days in front of the state's television building demanding the destroyed church be rebuilt. Some Muslims also joined in.
"I voted 'no' because, as an Egyptian, I want a new complete constitution...it's not based on the 'yes' of Islamist groups," said Ramy Kamel, a Coptic lawyer.