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By Coptic Solidarity

Although it has made some progress in religious freedom, Egypt still deserves to be labeled as a Country of Particular Concern—the worst designation, which would place Egypt in the company of nations such as North Korea and Sudan—says the new The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report, which was published in May 2. The report’s main findings follow:

Against a backdrop of deteriorating human rights conditions, the Egyptian government has taken positive steps to address some religious freedom concerns, including intolerance in religious curricula and extremism in religious discourse. In addition, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continued to make public statements encouraging religious tolerance and moderation and attended a Coptic Christmas Eve mass for the second consecutive year. Furthermore, there were notably fewer sectarian attacks against Christians and other religious minorities, and investigations and prosecutions continued for the unprecedented scale of destruction of churches and Christian property that occurred in the summer of 2013. However, other past large-scale sectarian incidents have not resulted in prosecutions, which continued to foster a climate of impunity. In addition, the longstanding discriminatory and repressive laws and policies that restrict freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief remain in place. During the past year, there was an increase in Egyptian courts prosecuting, convicting, and imprisoning Egyptian citizens for blasphemy and related charges. While the 2014 constitution includes improvements regarding freedom of religion or belief, the interpretation and implementation of relevant provisions remain to be seen, since the newly seated parliament has yet to act on the provisions. Based on these ongoing concerns, for the sixth year in a row, USCIRF recommends in 2016 that Egypt be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). USCIRF will continue to monitor the situation closely to determine if positive developments warrant a change in Egypt’s status during the year ahead.

Overall, Coptic Solidarity agrees with the main findings of the 2016 USCIRF Report concerning the situation of Copts and other minorities in the Egypt, with some important caveats. For instance, the report admits that “following the August 2013 church attacks, the number of incidents of kidnappings for ransom and extortion of Christians rose dramatically. While these incidents have decreased over the past year, they continue in parts of the country, particularly in Upper Egypt.” Yet it doesn’t mention the large number of Christian women, often minors, 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 report also makes strange assertions that confuse victims with perpetrators: “[I]n response to sectarian-related violence, local Egyptian authorities continue to conduct ‘customary reconciliation’ sessions between Muslims and Christians as a way of easing tensions and resolving disputes. In some cases, local authorities and Muslim and Christian religious leaders have abused these reconciliation sessions to compel victims to abandon their claims to any legal remedy.” While this is true, it is unclear how—if ever—“Christian leaders have abused these reconciliation sessions.”

These sessions are held almost always after large numbers of Muslims attack Christians, often in response to some purported infraction committed by a Christian—for instance, the accusation that a Christian youth is dating a Muslim girl—and almost always end in favor of the Muslims. Even the report goes on to admit that “Human rights groups have argued that reconciliation sessions disadvantage Christians in resolving various disputes, many of which are sectarian-related attacks targeting Christians.”

The report rightly acknowledges important steps President Sisi has taken to publically support Copts and religious freedom. For instance, in February 2015, he offered condolences in person to Coptic Pope Tawadros after the Islamic State butchered 20 Copts and one Ghanaian in Libya. He was also the first Egyptian president to attend a Coptic Christmas Eve mass in January 2015 and again in January 2016, when he publicly apologized that authorities had not yet finished rebuilding churches destroyed in August 2013, when the Coptic Church publicly supported Sisi coup against the Muslim Brotherhood led government. The government has since found that 29 people died in the pro-Brotherhood uprisings, 52 churches were completely destroyed, another 12 damaged, and numerous Christian-owned properties were destroyed. Currently, about half of the destroyed churches have been rebuilt.

However, even the report finds much of this rhetorical and not manifesting in any real or practical religious freedom for Copts:

While the Coptic community in general welcomes these and other symbolic gestures, repressive laws and discriminatory policies against Copts remain in place, including blasphemy charges and convictions, limits on building and maintaining churches, and limits on conversion from Islam. There also continues to be inadequate accountability for past violent attacks; most perpetrators from large-scale incidents that occurred between 2011 and 2013 – and even before that – have not been prosecuted. The inability to successfully prosecute those responsible for past violence against Copts and other religious minorities has continued to foster an atmosphere of impunity.

One of the most obvious ways that the Egyptian government appeases the Islamist agenda is by allowing the controversial “blasphemy law”—s Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code prohibits citizens from “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife”—to target Christians and moderates in ways arguably worse than under the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi.

For instance, a little more than two months before the report was published, three Christian teenagers were jailed for five years for breaking the defamation of religions law. A fourth defendant, 15, was handed a juvenile detention for an indefinite period. Earlier they were detained for 45 days and subjected to “ill-treatment” said a human rights group.
Their crime was to have made a 20-second video on a mobile phone mocking the Islamic State — an act interpreted as mocking Islam. According to their defense lawyer, Maher Naguib, the Christian youths “have been sentenced for contempt of Islam and inciting sectarian strife…. The judge didn’t show any mercy. He handed down the maximum punishment.”

Several other Christians have been prosecuted under Sisi’s tenure for insulting Islam and Muslims. One young Christian man was sentenced to six years for “liking” an Arabic-language Facebook page administered by Muslim converts to Christianity. A female Christian teacher was imprisoned for six months after Muslim parents accused her of insulting Islam and evangelizing. Bishoy Armia Boulous, a Muslim convert to Christianity, remains behind bars on trumped up charges of blasphemy, according to his lawyer.

While Christian minorities are the most prone to being targeted by the blasphemy law, secular Muslim thinkers and writers are also on the hit list. In January, Muslim writer Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison after she criticized the sadistic slaughter of animals that takes place during the Islamic festival, Eid al-Adha. The month before that, television host Islam al-Behairy was sentenced to one year in prison for questioning the validity of some of the sayings (hadiths) attributed to Muslim prophet Muhammad.

Although Egypt’s constitution outlaws the “defamation of religions,” the plural indicates that, along with Islam, Judaism and Christianity are protected. In reality, however, the law is almost exclusively used to prosecute Christian minorities and moderate or secular Muslims. Despite the fact that there are many more Muslims than Christians in Egypt, rarely are Islamists arrested and prosecuted for defaming Christianity. Even the report notes that “Blasphemy cases have increased since 2011, and this trend continued during the reporting period. While the majority of charges are leveled against Sunni Muslims, most of those sentenced by a court to prison terms for blasphemy have been Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists, largely based on flawed trials. According to Egyptian human rights groups, there were at least 21 new blasphemy cases between the beginning of 2015 and the end of the reporting period, a sharp increase when compared to the previous year.”

In this, Egypt is becoming more like Pakistan. Although that nation also prohibits the defamation of religions — which technically includes Christianity — only Christians and moderate Muslims are targeted and imprisoned; some, such as Asia Bibi, a 50-year-old Christian woman and mother of five, are on death row. Conversely, Muslims who openly defame Christianity — and they are many — are regularly let off one way or the other. A few weeks ago, a Muslim broke into a church and proceeded to burn its Bibles. Although several Christians caught him and handed him over to police, the latter claimed he was mentally unstable and could not stand trial. In another case, a Muslim shopkeeper started selling shoes that depict the Christian cross on their soles. Christians demonstrated but police did nothing.

On January 26, soon after the sentencing of the writer Fatima Naoot, another moderate Muslim and television host in Egypt, Ibrahim Eissa, scathingly criticized the Sisi government, in a way that resonated with many Copts and other minorities, including by saying that “there have been more blasphemy cases and convictions during the Sisi era than during the Morsi era.” He continued:

There is no greater contradiction between what the state says and claims about itself and the reality on the ground… The Egyptian state is schizophrenic because it says what it does not do…. It’s amazing and baffling to see a state who’s president regularly preaches about the need for religious discourse and renewal — and yet, during Sisi’s 18-19 month tenure, the nation has witnessed more reports, cases and convictions, and the imprisonment of writers, in the name of defamation of religions than during the one year tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood president…. The [Sisi] revolution dropped the Brotherhood but kept the ideology unchanged.

The report notes that “Over the past year, the number and severity of violent incidents targeting Copts and their property decreased significantly when compared to previous years.” However, “sporadic violence continued, particularly in Upper Egypt.”

For example, in June 2015, at the time of the two-year anniversary of the overthrow of former president Morsi, a number of Christian homes and properties were attacked, and in July, a mob firebombed a church in Alexandria and authorities reportedly responded slowly. In March, local police failed to prevent a mob attack on a Coptic church in the al-Our village, the hometown of 13 of the 20 Copts killed in Libya. In some parts of the country, Egyptian security services increased protection of churches during significant religious holidays, which lessened the level of fear and insecurity among members of the Coptic community.

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) held between the USCIRF and the State Department. “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 countries, aside from adding Turkmenistan, 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 without adding new ones. The State Department also has been lax in not making these designations annually as required by IRFA.

Coptic Solidarity agrees with the USICRF that Egypt reaches the benchmarks to be designated a CPC and encourages the State Department to follow-through and make the CPC designation in 2016. Despite the under utilization of the CPC tool by the State Department and the loss of credibility the US has incurred during the last several years, a designation would be a good first step to reinstate credibility in the value of the CPC tool. Most importantly, it could result in practical improvements in the lives of Copts and other minorities and represent true progress towards equality of all Egyptians.

Coptic Solidarity also notes that despite undergoing two massive revolutions which have caused incredible upheaval in Egypt, the systematic discrimination against Copts has remained largely consistent under Mubarak, the Military Council, Morsi, and Sisi. 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.

Coptic Solidarity believes that most “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.

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