November 27th was International Religious Freedom Day and a chance to celebrate the 16-year anniversary of the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. This legislation made the promotion of religious freedom abroad a formal part of US foreign policy.
Unfortunately, research and data demonstrate that there is little to celebrate in terms of religious freedom worldwide. On the contrary, as shown by the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life, whichhas conducted the most comprehensive research on this matter. The findings of their last report issued in 2012 found “The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012.” The region most affected by this trend was the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, Egypt ranked as one of the countries with the highest level of government restriction on religion! With continued persecution throughout the region, it seems likely that the next PEW report will demonstrate even further deterioration in the situation for religious minorities such as Copts in Egypt.
Indeed, PEW released additional findings on Egypt in 2013 stating, “Religious restrictions increased in the Middle East-North Africa region in the year following the Arab Spring, and Egypt was home to some of the most intense government restrictions. Butin Egypt, the government’s restrictions also are coupled with a Muslim public that is considerably less tolerant of religious pluralism than Muslims elsewhere.”
When asked about the application of sharia, “a majority of Egyptian Muslims (74%) want sharia, or Islamic law, enshrined as the official law of the land. However, Egypt is one of the few countries where a clear majority (74%) of sharia supporters say both Muslims and non-Muslims in their country should be subject to Islamic law.” In contrast, only 39% of Muslims polled worldwide thought sharia should be enshrined for non-Muslims and Muslims alike, demonstrating the polarization of many Egyptian Muslims.
Additionally, 88% of Egyptian Muslims favor criminalizing apostasy with the death penalty compared to a median %28 of Muslims surveyed in 37 countries on the same question. Clearly, social hostilities in Egypt against non-Muslims are a huge factor in the continued systematic discrimination against Copts and other religious minorities. There are salient factors behind such regrettable attitudes, such as a poor educational system, mosque preachers who incessantly emphasize the Muslims’ supremacy over the Other, and a lack of will by political leadership, regardless who is in power, to adopt politics of citizenship equality.
The passage of the 1998 IRFA legislation was an important step, but we recognize that the state of religious freedom worldwide is even more dire in 2014 than it was in 1998. Despite the mass exodus of religious minorities from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and the region, President Obama has yet to appoint and confirm a Special Envoy for Religious Freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia despite signing that bill into law earlier this year. Failing to make an appointment demonstrates the lack of prioritization for the most immediately nominate a qualified Special Envoy which is not only necessary but would be a fitting step during this week that we commemorate International Religious Freedom Day.