In Conference Speech

By Dr. Daniel Mark – Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Delivered at the Seventh Annual Coptic Solidarity Conference, Washington, D.C., June 9, 2016

Dr. Mark

Dr. Daniel Mark – Commissioner, USCIRF

Thank you very much. Thank you also to Alex Shalaby and Coptic Solidarity for inviting me to speak to you today about the plight of Coptic Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt and specifically about the intersection of national security and human rights. From one beleaguered Mediterranean people to another, I appreciate the opportunity to address your organization, which advocates for one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

For years, Coptic Solidarity has courageously and faithfully stood up on behalf of the persecuted. And I’m proud to say that, throughout this same time, USCIRF, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, has stood with you, spotlighting the abuses against Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt and the region.

I wish I could say that, since the onset of the Arab Spring more than five years ago, overall conditions have improved in Egypt. Sadly, I cannot. In fact, beginning with President Mubarak’s departure in early 2011 and continuing on with President Morsi’s election, all the way to Morsi’s overthrow in 2013 and its immediate aftermath, conditions actually worsened, often dramatically. To be absolutely clear, this is not to say Mubarak was good for Egypt. I appreciate that Copts and other religious minorities felt more secure under his rule, but we must be clear-eyed about the way in which his dictatorship paved the way for many of the problems that followed. Indeed, we must be very careful not to adopt the narrative that national security is a priority over human rights. When the two are seen as mutually exclusive, leading to the prioritization of national security over human rights, the time for protecting human rights seems to recede endlessly into the future. Still, in some ways, conditions have improved since the dark days of 2013. The streets of Cairo are no longer scenes of chaos and violence, with mobs led by religious extremists burning down churches and attacking Copts and other innocent citizens. The total anarchy of those days appears to be over at least for now.

Unfortunately, this only means that Egypt has settled back into the unacceptable status quo that preceded that
terrifying period. Copts might be better off today than during the unrest of 2013, but they are still far from being safe
and secure and far from being treated as equal citizens in their own country. In too many ways, the restrictive laws
and policies that have long discriminated against Copts and others persist. Copts still face discriminatory regulations that prevent the construction or renovation of houses of worship, notwithstanding President Sisi’s authorization of a church to be built in remembrance of the twenty Copts murdered in Libya. (Even though Sisi’s decision is a good one, it is a sad commentary on the general state of affairs that to receive approval for the building of a church is a notable event.) The government continues to refuse to recognize on ID cards conversion from Islam for those who are born Muslim but wish to join the Coptic Christian Church or another faith.

Although there have not been prosecutions along these lines for some time, the policy hinders conversion from
Islam, especially where proselytes are required to obtain the approval of the clergyman whose faith they are leaving.
Moreover, despite the rise in prosecutions for blasphemy, there has been only one case of a Muslim cleric facing charges for defiling a Bible. There should be no blasphemy prosecutions of any kind, but this unequal application of the law reveals that the law’s true intent is discriminatory. To be sure, Sisi has sent positive signals in favor of progress and freedom since coming to power. He has made a number of welcome public statements encouraging religious tolerance and moderation. He attended a Coptic Christmas Eve mass this year for the second consecutive year, and we commend him for it. It certainly sends the right message, and it represents an improvement over his predecessors.

Indeed, as I mentioned a moment ago, Sisi brought an end to the chaos of recent years. Unfortunately, his crackdown has included crushing all forms of peaceful dissent. In many ways, Sisi has operated with an even heavier hand than Mubarak. This has had a predictable chilling effect on the exercise of and advocacy for human rights, and it has discouraged civil society in general. And the fact remains that the same old laws and policies that have long restricted freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in Egypt remain. In fact, over the past year, as I have said, we have seen an increase in prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of Egyptians for blasphemy and related charges.

As with Mubarak and with Morsi, Sisi presides over a government that continues to disfavor religious minorities,
from Shi’a Muslims to Baha’is, as well as Copts and other Christians, and dissident members of Egypt’s Sunni majority. Besides being intrinsically wrong, these policies continue to marginalize religious minorities by reinforcing the view that they are outsiders. This, in turn, opens the door to inflammatory words and violent deeds by intolerant individuals and radical groups. To make matters worse, with the exception of some prosecutions for the unprecedented violence in August 2013 against Copts and their churches, the Egyptian government has failed to bring to justice the perpetrators of past violence, thus fueling a climate conducive to further assaults against Copts and other minorities.

Furthermore, in 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 rather
than seeking justice through the courts. In some cases, local authorities and religious leaders have abused these reconciliation sessions to compel victims to abandon their claims to any legal remedy. The fact of the matter is that reconciliation sessions often disadvantage Christians in resolving various disputes, many of which are sectarian related attacks targeting Christians.

To be clear, local mediation is a great idea in principle— but not if it subverts justice. Alternative resolution mechanisms are only legitimate if they are equitable and restorative, not if they exploit and reinforce asymmetries of power that already exist in the community. If aggrieved parties are pressured into accepting a small payment instead of going to court, or if they accept a deal because they fear the backlash of pressing charges, then the rule of law is undermined, and a climate of impunity festers. We know from Coptic clergy that this is especially a problem in Upper Egypt, and it is likely a problem elsewhere as well. So, we can appreciate the relative improvements for the religious freedom of Copts and other religious minorities under Sisi relative to Morsi, but we must do this without condoning the repression for which the government is responsible. In addition to direct, official discrimination, the elevation of national security as a priority at the expense of human rights contributes terribly to the persecution of religious minorities by radical groups.

For these reasons, this year, for the sixth year in a row, USCIRF has recommended that the US State Department designate Egypt as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for its serious violations of religious freedom. We admit that there is a difficult balance to strike, as we wish to recognize and encourage more of Sisi’s positive rhetoric without closing our eyes to basic injustices or to the core issue—a system that is authoritarian and therefore fundamentally flawed. We cannot pretend things are okay just because they could be worse.

At USCIRF, we like to remind people that when nations fail to uphold religious freedom, they are failing to support a natural right that belongs to every human being. That is the central principle at stake here and in every fight for religious freedom. But, in addition, there is a critical practical point here. Countries like Egypt that are locked in a struggle against violent religious extremism need religious freedom because the lack of religious freedom feeds the very extremism they are fighting. In this way, the lack of  religious freedom undermines national security. Religious persecution feeds religious extremism in at least four ways:

First, when governments enforce laws repressing religious freedom, they embolden extremists to commit violence against perceived transgressors. Thus, as I said a moment ago, official mistreatment of Copts and other minorities makes it easier for violent religious extremists to demonize them, to encourage attacks against them, and to directly perpetrate violence against them.

Second, when governments repress religious freedom or fail to protect it, they unwittingly drive some of their citizens into the arms of the very extremists they are fighting. Here’s why: For the vast majority of Egyptians, religion matters significantly in their lives, as it does for 84% of the world’s population, according to a Pew study. If you unduly restrict people’s right to practice their religion, you create the conditions for a restive, frustrated, and angry population, some of whom become sympathetic to the disestablishmentarian siren song of religious radicalism.

Third, governments that repress religious freedom in the name of combating religious extremism are often led by a single strongman. Whatever protection is achieved for religious minorities under that sort of rule is unstable and likely fleeting. It may dissipate once the dictator passes from the scene or loses control, as we saw in Egypt. This has been the experience of Shi’a Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis in Iraq in the post-Saddam era. And it has been the experience of religious minorities and even the Sunni majority in Syria since Assad began to lose his grip on certain areas of that country. Whether the ruler’s intentions are good or bad—and, to be clear, I do not wish to credit at all the intentions of Saddam Hussein or Bashar Assad— we must be wary of placing trust in a single strongman to defeat religious extremism or protect religious minorities because that kind of leadership will not foster underlying conditions necessary to create enduring religious freedom.

Fourth and finally, governments that repress everyone’s freedom in the name of fighting extremism unwittingly strengthen the extremists by weakening their more moderate but less resilient competition. Many religious radicals are fanatics who are willing to break every law and trample on every moral principle for the sake of their cause.  They will do many unsavory things that others would not do in order to survive when repressed or driven underground. In contrast, their more moderate competition—non-extremists yet people of faith—will not fare as well under persecution because, being less fanatical, they are less likely to believe that the ends justify the means, and therefore the government is more likely to succeed in extinguishing their beliefs and practices and ultimately their communities.

This adds up to a firm conclusion: Freedom is the solution, not the problem. In the long run, the best way to fight religious extremism and ensure national security is not with religious persecution but with religious freedom. Repression may be a short-run fix, but freedom is a longterm investment in the stability of a society. As we noted in our recently-released annual report, in a high-level meeting with Egyptian officials, Secretary of State Kerry emphasized the Obama administration’s view that the denial of human rights can fuel violent extremism.

It is, admittedly, a tough balance, as in the case of the government regulating what imams can preach in their mosques. On one hand, it is important that mosques not be bases for the spread of hatred and violence. On the other hand, restricting the speech of clergy is a tricky proposition. Reasonable people can disagree on just the right approach, but we can all agree that unless the protection of religious freedom and all human rights is built into the fabric of society and the system of government, it will always be just out of reach. There will always be the threat of looming instability or insecurity just ahead as an excuse to deny people their basic rights, including religious freedom, but to deny these is wrong in principle and a mistake in practice. Until this approach of the government changes, USCIRF should continue to recommend Egypt for designation as a CPC.

Toward that end, we urge that the following be done on behalf of religious minorities and religious freedom in Egypt:

One: the US State Department should send a strong message to Cairo by designating Egypt a CPC, with followthrough by the US president.

Two: Washington must urge Cairo to: repeal discriminatory decrees against religious minorities, remove religion from official identity documents, abolish the blasphemy codes, and eliminate any impediments to the construction and repair of places of worship.

Three: the American government must ensure that a portion of its aid is used to help police implement a planto better protect religious minorities and their places of worship.

And, four: the United States must urge Egypt to bring to justice those who have committed violence against others on account of their religion in order to break the climate of impunity that perpetuates such attacks. USCIRF’s concern for the Coptic community goes back to a case addressed in 1999 and 2000, the first years of the commission.

And we have remained steadfast in our commitment to standing up for the Copts, other religious minorities in Egypt, and of course the religious freedom of everyone everywhere. Though we are not sanguine about the long road ahead, we look forward to continuing to work with the Coptic community to advance liberty and promote justice. The United States must always be committed to countering extremism without compromising human rights.

Thank you.


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