By Coptic Solidarity –
Last week the State Department released its annual report on International Religious Freedom which documents the state of religious freedom in nearly every country worldwide except for the United States.
While introducing the report, Secretary Kerry explained “The purpose of this annual report is to highlight the importance of religious freedom not by lecturing but through advocacy and through persuasion. Our primary goal is to help governments everywhere recognize that their societies will do better with religious liberty than without it.”
The combined documentation provided by this annual report and that of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which was published in April of this year, represent a tremendous effort to provide accountability and data that can be used to assist religious groups that suffer persecution.
Coptic Solidarity is grateful to the Ambassador -at -Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, and to his entire team who work diligently to produce this resource. While various faith groups and indigenous communities may not agree with everything in each report, the mere creation of this resource and existence of a team to monitor and record religious freedom worldwide demonstrates the American commitment to our First Freedom.
The Egypt country report provides much documentation of the key restrictions and issues facing Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt. But there are also a number of important items that were omitted and some which could use additional explanation. Coptic Solidarity provides our readers and the State Department with the following constructive criticism which we hope will serve to explain and advocate improved religious freedom for Copts and all Egyptians.
Coptic Solidarity’s primary criticism of the Egypt report is that it presents and overly optimistic picture of the state of religious freedom in 2014, which is relative to the horrific violence Copts endured in 2013 under Morsi and relative to the increasing attacks against minorities in the region by non-state actors such as ISIL, El-Shabab, and Boko Haram in 2014, which have continued in 2015. According to the Executive Summary of the report, the first Positive Development of 2014 says “Improved status of largest population of Christians in Middle East and largest religious minority in Egypt.”
This sections says “there have been some convictions of perpetrators of violence against Copts, although impunity from prosecution for such crimes remains a problem.” Unfortunately the report completely neglects to mention the Maspero Massacre of 2011 in which dozens of Copts were killed by Egyptian military personnel. In fact, as recently reported by an eye witness of the event, “General Hamdy Badeen, at that time the military police’s commander… I remember seeing him among the military police, while they were shooting and running over protesters…. Military police killed at least 23 peaceful Coptic protesters that day. Badeen was the police chief who led his troops to kill civilians, and he has never been held accountable for this crime.” Moreover, the state television station called on Egyptians to come to the streets to protect the military from Copts who were attacking them…a blatant false accusation and incitement to violence. None of those responsible have been held to account for the brutal deaths of Copts that night.
In 2013, Muslim mobs with the participation and under observation of some Egyptian police, attacked St. Mark’s Cathedral with live ammunition and Molotov cocktail while Copts were holding a funeral for six individuals. There were many women and children present during the attack. This is the equivalent of Christians attacking Mecca, yet by the end of 2014 only 21 suspects had been charged. The report fails to acknowledge the trauma inflicted upon Copts by the attack against their holiest site and how continued impunity for attackers and police encourages further targeting of Copts as Egyptians know they will not be held responsible.
The report rightly acknowledges that the Egyptian government almost always uses “reconciliation sessions,” but misses that this nearly always mean that Copts are left without justice and it encourages more attacks against them and their properties. The problem is not just that Christians view the results as unfair, but that they are literally robbed of justice, compensation, and personal safety as Muslims are provided by the state.
While both the Maspero Massacre and the attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral occurred prior to 2014, inaction by the Egyptian government to address the grievances and bring justice to the situation demonstrates that Copts continue in their status as second class citizens and cannot expect equal treatment such as their Sunni Muslim compatriots receive.
Another key indicator of improved religious freedom for Copts in the report is that “the new Egyptian constitution provides increased human rights protections as compared to the previous constitution, including a stipulation of equality before the law irrespective of religion.” Many countries in the world have constitutions which guarantee religious freedom, including North Korea, but if those rights are not guaranteed in practice, the constitution has little meaning. The report even notes how Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are the only faiths with guaranteed rights, excluding Baha’i, Atheists, and other minorities. Coptic Solidarity notes this to make the point that changing language in the constitution is flimsy evidence with which to credit such an improvement. Words must be fulfilled by action.
The report also points to the requirement “that the parliament pass a new law facilitating the construction and renovation of Christians churches, which is without precedent, and provides for the establishment of an anti-discrimination omission to eliminate all forms of discrimination.” While these are all very positive signs, the fact is that the parliamentary elections are just starting in the fall of 2015 and it is to be seen if the new parliament does pass such a law. The creation of the commission is also good, but is it or will it be effective? To date we have no evidence that the actual situation for Copts has improved on a daily basis…unless we are comparing their situation to the brief rule under Morsi and the many violent attacks against Copts that occurred during his rule.
What Coptic Solidarity finds most noteworthy is just how little the situation of Copts has changed under the leadership of Mubarak, Morsi, and now El-Sissi on a daily basis. We find that with the increase of non-state actors inflicting violent persecution against minorities, the systematic discrimination and overall situation of Copts and other minorities is being missed and/or presented as improved. The reality is that far more Copts and minorities suffer from daily systematic discrimination and persecution from their governments and societies than those being attacked by non-state actors.
Coptic solidarity does not in any way trivialize the horrific violence that has been committed against indigenous Christians, Yazidis, and others in the region. In fact, we have made this persecution the focus of our last 2 annual conferences and conducted extensive advocacy and work with our MECHRIC partners to lend our voice to those suffering so greatly at the hands of ISIL.
To better illustrate how the fundamental position of Copts as second class citizens in Egyptian society has not changed substantially, we will highlight a few areas. While the report notes many of these restrictions, it is difficult to show in that format how much Copts’ daily lives are affected.
Personal Identification Cards
State issued ID cards still require that a person’s religion be listed. With a Muslim majority military and police, this means that Copts are easily targeted for discrimination when anyone looks at their ID card. Furthermore, Muslim converts to Christianity or any other religion cannot get the religion changed on their ID card as devout Muslims working in those offices simply will not comply.
In this way, the new convert still must be governed by Sharia inspired laws rather than by the Christian courts. This means that the convert is restricted to marrying a Muslim or facing further persecution for marrying outside of their faith. Inheritance, custody, and all other family matters will be handled under Muslim law, completely ignoring the individual’s personal choice to convert. The situation is multiplied if the convert has children. Because the convert’s ID card still says Muslim, his/her children will be registered as Muslims against the parent’s will and will be forced to study Islam in school, in addition to facing all the same difficulties their parents did in terms of the state considering the individual as Muslim even when it is not their professed faith. In this way, the state maintains great control on the population preventing them from having full religious freedom to convert, practice their faith freely, and raise a family according to their faith. The case of Bishoy Boulous is a perfect example of how these restrictions impact Copts on a daily basis.
The case of Bishoy Armia Boulous is a good litmus test for the country. Boulous was first imprisoned under Mubarak and was the very first convert to Christianity who sued the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for the right to change the religion on his ID card from Muslim to Christian. He is married to Muslim convert to Christianity and they were expecting their first child. He lost the case and has been imprisoned for the majority of the time since 2009 through now…spanning Mubarak, Morsi, and El-Sissi. In 2013 he was re- arrested after a short period of release for “illegally filming demonstrations to stir international public opinion against Egypt.” In fact, Boulous was documenting the destruction of churches by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters. This year on July 20th an appellate court ordered his release, but he was immediately rearrested and now is facing a reopened charge from 2009 on “denigrating Islam.” It is obvious that the Egyptian government, regardless of the current leadership, has no intention of allowing individuals like Boulous the freedom to choose and practice their faith. Boulous’ wife and two children had to flee the country while he languishes in prison. He clearly is being used as an example of what happens to those who have the courage to make their own faith choice.
Education and Employment
El- Sissi mandated that 24 seats in the new House of Representatives be reserved for Christians, an increase over the last parliament that had only 13 Christians. While this would be an improvement if enacted, it is still a paltry representation. The report rightly notes that “Christians continued to be underrepresented relative to their population in senior government positions, averaging 3 cabinet members in the last several years out of a total 36 cabinet positions. There are still no Christians amongst the country’s 26 governors. No Christians serve as president’s in any of the country’s 17 public universities. Only Muslims are permitted to study at Al-Azhar University which is publically funded. And the government pays Muslim clergy but not any Christian clergy. No Christian has been permitted to serve in high level positions in the Egyptian military. Essentially, the situation has remained almost identical to what it was under Mubarak and Morsi.
Kidnapping of Copts
The report is excellent in documenting the increase in kidnapping of Copts for ransom, particularly in Upper Egypt. It also notes that Pope Tawadros II discussed this concern with President El-Sissi. There are two main issues with this topic. The first is that the Egyptian government did not and still has not taken concrete steps to protect Christians, in 2014 or even now in 2015. Copts are not safer and enjoying greater religious freedom. Their personal safety is at great risk, particularly in Upper Egypt and many families have been force to flee for their lives. Secondly, the report completely omits the very large problem of Coptic women and girls who are being kidnapped, forcibly raped, married to Muslim men, and converted to Islam. Possibly due to a few cases with questionable data, the report completely neglects this major problem which has greatly restricted the freedom of movement, education, work, etc. for Coptic women in Egypt. Christian Solidarity International and the First Freedom Center have both published reports on this issue with sufficient documentation to ensure an acknowledgement of the specific targeting of Coptic women and girls for these crimes. To date, we know of very few cases in which women have successfully returned home.
Coptic Solidarity concludes that the El-Sisi administration decreased the overt violent attacks on Copts in 2014 compared to what they endured under Morsi’s rule. Yet, the daily life of Copts has changed very little. Copts are still second class citizens who are denied equality and the same freedoms their Muslim compatriots enjoy in nearly every aspect of daily life. Coptic Solidarity acknowledges the monumental task facing President El-Sisi in turning Egypt into a healthy, prosperous country. The majority of Copts are very supportive of his efforts and want to assist in the development of their beloved Egypt. Egypt will never become a prosperous, modern society without the full inclusion of its minorities who have much to offer through their talents and abilities to build and strengthen their homeland. In the words of Secretary Kerry, “The message at the heart of this report is that countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. And this is not a hopeful theory; this is a proven reality. No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs.”