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By Coptic Solidarity

This week the State Department issued its annual report International Religious Freedom Report (covering 2013), which details the status of religious freedom in each of 195 countries throughout the world excluding the United States.

Coptic Solidarity welcomes the issuance of this report as it contains vital updates and information regarding overall treatment of the Coptic community as well as specific troubling incidents.

Overall the report accurately captures the situation stating “Respect for religious freedom remained poor during the year under both former President Mohamed Morsi’s administration and the current interim government.” Because the 2012 constitution as well as the Constitutional Declaration retained Islam as the state religion and principles of sharia as the primary sources of legislation, the disadvantaged status of all non-Sunni Muslims has remained intact. Furthermore, the report accurately notes that only the 3 Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are officially recognized restricting the limited view of religious freedom members of those faiths and excluding atheists, Baha’i and other members of minority faiths.

The IRF report details all the major legal problems, personal status law issues (marriage, education, inheritance, etc.) discrimination in employment and government positions and difficulties for Christians to obtain building permits or even permits to fix existing structures, inability for Muslims to officially convert or for converts to have their ID cards represent their faith. It also accurately identifies the Egyptian government’s failure not only to protect Coptic Christians and other minorities on a consistent basis (as evidenced by the many violence attacks resulting in deaths, destruction of churches, homes, and Coptic businesses), but also the complete lack of brining perpetrators to justice. The culture of impunity promoted by the Egyptian government gives minorities little confidence in receiving justice or compensation in religiously motivated attacks which are often meted out as collective punishment for the offense or even perceived offense of a single Copt. One of the best examples is mentioned by the report that the Egyptian government “did not investigate and prosecute any military or police commanders reportedly responsible for ordering or failing to prevent violence against the mostly Coptic demonstrators at the Maspiro radio and television building…” Notably, convictions of Muslims are rare for committing violence against Christians, and often the sentences are notably less harsh. Indeed it is not uncommon that the Coptic defendants in a quarrel get severely punished, while the Muslims are acquitted.

Also, the report rightly twice devotes attention to the horrific outbreak of retaliatory violence against the entire Coptic community between August 14 – 17th which resulted in at least 42 churches being attacked, the looting and destruction of 37 of those churches, and attacks on Christian-own property and affiliated facilities such as orphanages . Unfortunately the report blames “Islamic-led mobs” rather than naming the Muslim Brotherhood supporters for these attacks.

Coptic Solidarity is disappointed with the lack of clear reporting regarding the attack against the seat of the Coptic Pope at St. Mark’s Cathedral. The IRF report mentions that “clashes erupted among mourners, police, and residents near the cathedral,” as if Coptic mourners had a role in the attack. Video footage and first hand testimony clearly indicate that mourners were attacked by Muslim fanatics and supported by Egyptian security forces, some of who assisted in the attack on innocent civilians including women and children, and those who simply observed and did nothing to stop the attack.   Blame for the attack needs to be places squarely on the attackers. It is also shocking that this attack on the most holy Coptic site did not even merit coverage in Secretary Kerry’s introductory remarks although many other situations did. If this attack had been on Mecca or the Vatican, it would have become the focal point of the entire report rather than a side paragraph.

Another disturbing aspect of the report is that the State Department attempts to argue that religious freedom is an integral part of its foreign policy. Leaving the position of the Ambassador-at Large for Intl. Religious Freedom vacant for over 9 months indicates that it is not a priority. The Egypt section of the report also points to several high profile statements by administration officials while entirely ignoring that the position of US Ambassador to Egypt remained vacant from August 2013 to June 2014, a significant portion of the reporting period. It is also a disingenuous representation of US promotion of religious freedom in Egypt considering that former Ambassador Ann Patterson formerly “encouraged” Copts not to participate in the popular protest that overthrew President Morsi. Combined, these actions indicate a lack of real commitment to the promotion of religious freedom and human rights in Egypt.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom traditionally releases its annual report a few months prior to the State Department and makes recommendations regarding which countries should be designated as CPCs. The USCIRF has recommended that Egypt be designated a CPC every year since the publication of their 2011 report. It is disappointing that the administration again ignored this important recommendation, which could serve to improve the plight of all religious minorities in Egypt.

Lastly, the report does not clearly draw the connections between the rise in violence against religious minorities and the Islamization of Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood’s time in power under Morsi. The Egyptian government and numerous other governments have named the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, the US government has not. Furthermore, US government officials even visited imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood officials during the reporting period and have made efforts to support their representation in government even after being ousted by the largest public demonstrations in world history. No report on the state of religious freedom in Egypt is complete without an accurate representation of the US relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and their role in decreasing religious freedom in Egypt and further alienating religious minorities.

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