AZIYAH, Egypt (AP) -- Hymns echoing from the new church in this village in Egypt's southern heartland could be heard well after sundown, a reminder of the jubilant mood as Aziyah's Christian residents voted on a new constitution.
Outside in the dusty streets, volunteers hurriedly arranged for buses to transport voters to polling stations before they closed on Wednesday night. In past elections, Islamists used fear or intimidation to stop Christians from voting against them.
This time around, Aziyah's Christians faced no obstacles on their way to the ballot box.
"I cast my ballot as I pleased. I am not afraid of anybody," said Heba Girgis, a Christian resident of the nearby village of Sanabu, who said she was harassed and prevented from casting a vote against the 2012 Islamist-backed constitution. "Last time I wanted to say no. I waited in line for two hours before the judge closed the station."
"This time we said 'yes' and our opinion matters," Girgis added as she walked home with a friend after casting her vote. "This is for our children, for all those who died and suffered. Our word now carries weight."
The busy winding alleys of Aziyah and other villages with large Christian populations in the southern province of Assiut were in sharp contrast to the dimmed streets and deserted polling stations of neighboring hamlets, mostly populated by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi -- a testimony to a boycott organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups against the military-supported constitution.
In Assiut, the birthplace of most of Egypt's Islamist groups, and neighboring Minya, the campaign was particularly strong against the charter, a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in 2012.
The new document would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special powers to name its own candidate as defense minister for the next eight years and bring civilians before military tribunals.
Christians number nearly 2 million of the 5 million voters in the southern provinces of Assiut and Minya, almost four times the national average. In Aziyah, which prides itself as the "capital" of Coptic Christians in the south, getting out the vote in support of the constitution was a serious enterprise.
"For the Copts, the responsibility these days doesn't permit for any apathy," said Muntassir Malek, one of Aziyah's most ardent get-out-the-vote mobilizers and founder of its new three-story church, a rarity in Egypt, where easier access to permits for building churches is at the heart of the Christian minority's demands.
During the two-day referendum, security and army troops deployed heavily in the south, where daily protests by Morsi supporters were particular violent.
More than 15,000 troops fanned out across the two provinces, and sandbags were erected outside a number of polling stations. There were frequent helicopter runs and flyovers by F-16 jets. As helicopters hovered over the heads of voters Wednesday in the Christian village of Kunbuah, a loud cheer went up. "Thank you, el-Sissi!" the crowd shouted, referring to the country's increasingly popular military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The majority of the voting in Assiut and Minya has been driven by Christians, election monitors said.
"Christians are the No. 1 voters," said monitor Ezzat Ibrahim, adding that turnout overall has been far lower in the south, where support for Morsi was strongest during his presidential bid -- a reflection of the Islamist boycott.
Tensions, not new between Islamists and Christians, took a turn for the worse after the Islamists' rise to political prominence following the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Determined to institute Islamic laws in legislation and way of life, the Islamists have alienated Christians -- and deepened suspicions that a more Islamic state would only aggravate Christians' longstanding complaint that they are treated as second-class citizens.
"This is a referendum that will restore Egypt to the Egyptians," said Eva Habil, the 59-year old former mayor of Kunbuah. "Today, because the state provided me with security and protection, I can go out and cast my vote without fear. You will find all are out. This is my army ... protecting me. "
In Kunbuah's tiny church, Father Philemon exhorted a group of female parishioners to vote in the referendum, calling it a "sacred duty."
"We need to protect this nation," the priest told a gathering of about 150 women. "It is a sacred duty to cast your vote. I hope no one is lax."