BY HAMZA HENDAWI
ASSIUT, Egypt (AP) -- A campaign of intimidation by Islamists left most Christians in this southern Egyptian province too afraid to participate in last week's referendum on an Islamist-drafted constitution they deeply oppose, residents say. The disenfranchisement is hiking Christians' worries over their future under empowered Muslim conservatives.
Around a week before the vote, some 50,000 Islamists marched through the provincial capital, Assiut, chanting that Egypt will be "Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians." At their head rode several bearded men on horseback with swords in scabbards on their hips, evoking images of early Muslims conquering Christian Egypt in the 7th Century.
They made sure to go through mainly Christian districts of the city, where residents, fearing attacks, shuttered down their stores and stayed in their homes, witnesses said.
The day of the voting itself 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 told The Associated Press this week.
The 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, Egypt's 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, a Christian activist in Assiut. "If this does not change, things will only get worse for Christians."
But some of the Christians of Assiut are pushing back against the emboldened Islamists. In recent weeks, young Christians joined growing street protests to demand that the charter is shelved, casting aside decades of political apathy.
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 of Egypt's referendum. 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 held the coming Saturday in 17 provinces, including in Minya, which has the country's highest proportion of Christians, at 36 percent.
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 businessman Emad Awny Ramzy, a key organizer of local protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood. "Here they can easily identify, monitor and attack us."
A senior figure of the Gamaa Islamiya -- which was once one of the main groups waging the Islamic militant insurgency in Assiut but has since renounced violence and is allied to Morsi's government -- dismissed the Christians' allegations of intimidation in the province.
The claims are "just lies and rumors that surface every time we have an election," Assem Abdel-Magued said. The Brotherhood and officials in Morsi's government have similarly dismissed claims of violations around the country.
The draft constitution, finalized by Islamists on a Constituent Assembly despite a boycott by liberals and Christians, has polarized Egypt, bringing out huge rival street rallies by both camps in the past four weeks. Opponents of Morsi accuse him of ramming the document through and, more broadly, of imposing a Brotherhood domination of power. Morsi supporters, in turn, accuse his opponents of seeking to thwart a right to bring Islamic law they say they earned with election victories the past year.