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Christian voters' fears rise in Egypt

Islamists allegedly tried to thwart foes of Morsi's charter in a southern province.

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 raising Christians' worries over their future under empowered Muslim conservatives.

Nearly 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 seventh century.

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

The day of the voting Saturday, Christian voting was minimal - as low as 7 percent in some areas, said church officials. Some who did try to head to polling stations were pelted by stones, forcing them to turn back, Christian activists and residents told the Associated Press.

A barometer

The activists see what happened in Assiut as a barometer for what Christians' status will be under a constitution that enshrines a greater role for Islamic law in government and daily life.

Some Christians in Assiut are pushing back. 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. It is also a stronghold of Egypt's Islamists, who now dominate its local government.

'Lies and rumors'

It was one of 10 provinces that voted in the first round. Nationwide, about 56 percent voted for 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 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, including in Minya, which has the country's highest proportion of Christians, at 36 percent.

A senior figure of the Gamaa Islamiya - which was once one of the main groups waging the Islamic militant insurgency in Assiut but has renounced violence and is allied to Morsi's government - dismissed the intimidation allegations as "just lies and rumors."

Officials in Morsi's government have similarly dismissed claims of violations.