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By Coptic Solidarity

On Thursday the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report as mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which created the entity. Unlike the annual report published by the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, the USCIRF report does not cover every country in the world. It hones in a few number of countries known to have religious freedom problems.

Overall, Coptic Solidarity believes this 2015 USCIRF Report accurately reflects the situation of Copts and other minorities in the Egypt. One glaring omission is the lack of reporting on the very large number of minority women who have been kidnapped, raped, forcibly converted and married to Muslims. Coptic women are particularly targeted for this fate and over 500 have disappeared in the last several years with little response from the US government, much less any assistance from the Egyptian government to investigate their disappearances.

The points of disagreement amongst individual Commissioners and views on US policy towards Egypt to encourage greater religious freedom present a microcosm of the US government’s convoluted policy towards Egypt.

The report rightly acknowledges important steps President El –Sissi has taken to publicly support Copts and religious freedom. Examples of this include his visit to St. Mark’s to commemorate the Christmas Mass with Copts, meeting in person with Pope Tawadros to offer condolences after the 21 Copts were beheaded in Libya by ISIS, and his call to reform Islamic discourse at Al- Ahzar University. Yet, as the report notes, these are positive rhetorical steps that have not changed the institutional discrimination and persecution suffered by Copts.

The “number and severity of violent incidents targeting Copts and their property decreased significantly when compared to the previous year” yet the report notes that these incidents continue periodically and that the level of comparison was to a year (Jan. 2013-Jan. 2014) with unprecedented attacks against Copts. That reporting period covered the ouster of Morsi and the ensuing rampant destruction of Churches, Coptic homes and businesses, and attacks on individual Copts. Thus, it is clear this “improvement” is not much to celebrate and is acknowledge by report authors.

USCIRF also notes that some of the systematic religious freedom issues were to be addressed once Parliamentary elections happened (originally scheduled for March – April this year) but have been delayed towards the end of the year because the “Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the law on electoral constituencies was unconstitutional because it did not guarantee fair representation.”

What are some of these systematic religious freedom violations that have not been addressed?

·      Article 98(f) is a “blasphemy” law which protects faiths rather than individuals. It allows punishment against those deemed to have insulted a heavenly religion (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) and is used almost exclusively to protect Sunni Islam at the expense of beliefs, free speech and religious practice of Shi’a Muslims, Copts, Baha’i’ and “Atheists.” In the last reporting period the number of blasphemy cases actually increased. “While the majority of charges are leveled against Sunni Muslims, the majority of those sentences by a court to prison terms for blasphemy have been Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists, mostly based on flawed trials.”

·      Very few perpetrators of attacks on Copts and their properties have been brought to justice. The culture of impunity means that Copts must live with the knowledge that they can be attacked, lose their livelihoods, have their daughters or wives kidnapped, and the Egyptian government will do virtually nothing to assist them.

·      Article 235 of the new Constitution will supposedly force the incoming Parliament to change the requirement of government approval to repair and build churches. This provision has been used extensively to prevent Copts from repairing their churches or building new ones.

Coptic Solidarity agrees with the majority of the Recommendations portion and believes it is important that USCIRF has rightly identified key policy changes that would improve religious freedom for Copts and other minorities.

The crux of religious freedom issues in Egypt is best demonstrated by the disagreement regarding designating Egypt as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ or (CPC) amongst the USCIRF Commissioners.  “IRFA requires the US government to designate as a CPC any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.” USCIRF has recommended that Egypt be designated a CPC every year since 2011. The Department of State, who makes the official CPC designations as a part of US foreign policy towards those countries, has not agreed to designate Egypt as a CPC.

The CPC tool was designed as an adaptable and effective tool to encourage foreign governments to improve religious freedom. US foreign policy is not based on a single issue. Recognizing that, it is critical that the State Department use this tool effectively.

In practice the State Department continues to underutilize the CPC tool in US policy in several critical ways. Firstly, the inequity in how it is applied to countries deemed important to US interests versus the “expendable” ones undermine efforts to demonstrate that religious freedom is a universal right equally deserved by ALL people worldwide. An example of this problem is that the CPC designation has been given to Eritrea who was slapped with sanctions in relations to military equipment purchases, yet Saudi Arabia who also has the CPC designation and does not allow the building of a single church or public practice of any faith other than Islam, negotiated to “improve” school text books in response to the designation.

Also, by merely designating the same 9 countries (only 1 country has ever been removed from the CPC list that was not related to a change in government)  the State Department has not kept pace with dynamic developments in many countries. Certainly the state of religious freedom has not remained so static as to justify designating the same countries repeatedly. The State Department also has been very lax in not making these designations annually as required by IRFA.

It is notable that the vote by USCIRF Commissions on whether or not to recommend Egypt by designated a CPC was disputed. The USCIRF voted to include Egypt in their list of countries to receive the CPC designation…which is supposed to assist the State Department in making their official recommendations. While Egypt reaches the state benchmarks to be designated a CPC, the more immediate question is whether or not that would make a significant difference on behalf of religious minorities in Egypt when the tool as been so poorly utilized and when the US government (under the Obama Administration) has destroyed all credibility with the Egyptian people.

While true that Egypt has undergone two massive revolutions which have caused incredible upheaval, it is important to note that the systematic discrimination against Copts has remained largely consistent under Mubarak, the Military Council, Morsi, and El-Sissi. It is still nearly impossible for Copts to build and repair churches. Copts do not have the freedom to speak about their beliefs without fear of blasphemy accusations and abuse in prison. Religion is still required on government issued ID cards which means that Copts can always be singled out for discrimination in education, jobs, custody, and every other aspect of life. Copts are still excluded from “high profile” state posts and their presence limited to below 2% in various state organs.

Vice Chair James J. Zogby is the only Commissioner who registered his official dissent to designating Egypt as a CPC primarily because he thinks Egypt is moving in the right direction with significant improvements in the area of reforming school text books and also claiming that Coptic leaders say “they feel more secure than they have in a long time.” Ultimately, he believes the timing of such a designation followed by potential sanctions sends the wrong message.

Coptic Solidarity believes that the “significant improvements” are still primarily rhetorical and the situation for minorities has not improved. It is actually very precarious. Considering that Egypt has the largest religious minority in the Middle East and given the genocide against minorities throughout the region, we believe it is more critical now than ever to support this community struggling to obtain equal rights and protection. We do not believe the talked-about changes to textbooks represent a significant achievement that will make a big difference. Regarding Coptic leaders feeling safer…they had just endured the first attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral in living history, the destruction of nearly 100 churches and Coptic institutions, and many attacks on Coptic individuals. The benchmark to “feeling safer” is very low at this time. Lastly, the Department of State (DOS) is not required to enforce sanctions with the CPC designation. DOS has a large array of tools and options which can be used to promote religious freedom while simultaneously supporting Egypt’s military efforts to defeat terrorist threats. These policy goals need not be mutually exclusive.

Commissioners Eric P. Schwarts and Thomas J. Reese, S.J. chose to abstain from the vote on whether or not to designate Egypt as a CPC.  In their statement, they note the odd timing of sending a message that religious freedom is deteriorating while the report has cited “important public statements and gestures.” It is unfortunate that these commissioners cannot affirm positive rhetoric while also recognizing the urgent need to support actual improvements for these persecuted communities. Rhetoric and action are not equal. Ironically, these same Commissioners note the abuses of human rights under El-Sissi which deserve their strongest condemnation and even state “Let us be clear that we are no fans of the Sissi regime.”  A reader of the report is left with the impression that these Commissioners are more sympathetic to the “cause” of Muslim Brotherhood members who have been imprisoned and sentenced, than for the religious minorities who are suffering systematic abuse.

Coptic Solidarity seeks to bridge the polarization of views on Egypt that seem to permeate US foreign policy. On one side we have security hawks who focus solely on the terrorist threat in Egypt which is a problem that we agree must be addressed immediately and aggressively. Yet, fighting terrorism does not necessitate marginalizing, targeting and persecuting religious minorities who live and believe differently than the majority Sunni population. The minorities are proud Egyptians who support El-Sissi’s fight against terrorism. The US can and should work with Egypt’s government to improve religious freedom for these minorities without detracting from the important fight against terrorism.

On the other side are those such as the dissenting and non-voting Commissioners who seem to equate a crackdown on civil liberties (presumably in reference to Rabaa’ or what is happening to Muslim Brotherhood supporters) with the attacks against religious minorities. This is a grave error as many of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters have engaged in violent attacks and/or support a violent ideology whereas religious minorities are peaceful, loyal citizens seeking to build a stronger country that supports diversity.

Possibly the most ironic of all this discussion is that most Egyptians simply no longer care what America thinks about their government or decisions. President El-Sisi has made amply clear in multiple interviews that they would greatly appreciate support of Egypt’s military efforts to fight terrorism, but they will not tolerate violence perpetuated by the Muslim Brotherhood. And for all intents and purposes, Egyptians equate the American government with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, be it former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama, or former US Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson. Until the US develops a clear policy towards Egypt that supports US values such as simultaneously supporting human rights and religious freedom while defeating jihadi terrorism and its underlying ideology, and supporting national security, our recommendations will have limited impact.

Overall, the USCIRF has provided valuable reporting and recommendations which Coptic Solidarity encourages the Department of State to implement them.

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