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By Coptic Solidarity –
September 14, 2016

On August 10, 2016, the State Department issued its annual report on International Religious Freedom which documents the state of religious freedom in nearly every country worldwide except for the United States.

Coptic Solidarity applauds the excellent research and documentation provided in this annual report. The caliber of reporting and policy recommendations in the annual report have improved under the leadership of Ambassador – at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein. The quality and accuracy of the annual report provides governments, NGOs, religious groups, and media with an invaluable tool to address restrictions on religious freedom worldwide. Coptic Solidarity congratulates the team of individuals required to compile and draft this report including those in the US Embassy in Egypt as well as the dedicated professionals in the Office of International Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.

The 2015 Egypt country report provides an excellent overview of the constitutional and legal guarantees of religious freedom contrasted with the many inconsistencies in application of these legal rights which relegate Copts to second class citizens in their homeland. The report accurately covers areas of systematic government discrimination against Copts as well as the societal discrimination that combine to create the increasingly hostile environment towards Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt.

The most obvious improvement in the 2015 report was to more accurately portray the situation in Egypt balancing claims or indications of improvement with the actual results on the ground. In the 2014 Annual International Religious Freedom Report, Egypt was referred to as a key positive development with which Coptic Solidarity fervently disagreed saying, “Coptic Solidarity’s primary criticism of the Egypt report is that it presents an 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.”

Some areas that Coptic Solidarity criticized in the 2014 report were greatly improved this year including:

  • No longer referring to the newest Egyptian Constitution as a serious indicator of the improvement of religious freedom in Egypt all the evidence in the report demonstrates that no real progress has been made.
  • Not just a reference to the use of reconciliation sessions but a description of how reconciliation sessions are used to deprive Copts of justice and how that impunity for perpetrators perpetuates attacks against Copts.
  • An explanation of the new church building law that Parliament was supposed to draft and pass by end of 2015 and their failure to do so.
  • Inclusion of many specific cases such as that of Mohammed Hegazi (Bishoy Boulous), demonstrating that religious freedom violations have been consistent under Mubarak, Morsi, and al-Sisi.

Coptic Solidarity also applauds the excellent reporting on issues such as:

  • President al-Sisi’s positive rhetoric while visiting St. Mark’s for Christmas masses and his speech on religious tolerance and the need to reform Islam at Al-Azhar balanced with reporting on the lack of action following these speeches, including Al-Azhar’s banning of a book titled Blasphemy in Egypt which was co-authored by Coptic Solidarity Board Member, Magdi Khalil.
  • An update on the number of churches repaired by the Egyptian government despite promises to repair all those destroyed in August 2013.
  • The dismal rate of prosecution and conviction for those who attacked Copts, churches, and their properties.
  • An excellent focus on the many problems generated by blasphemy/defamation laws in Egypt and how they are used disproportionally against religious minorities to shut down freedom of religion and expression.
  • The continuing difficulties in obtaining permits to build and repair churches as well as concrete examples of illegal closure and disruption in building churches.
  • A comprehensive review on areas of discrimination against Copts including employment, education, inheritance, custody, ID cards, marriage, and rampant kidnapping.

While the primary purpose of the annual report is to cover any changes, improvements, or worsening of religious freedom in each country, Coptic Solidarity recommends the addition of a section to the country reports which would serve as a reference to determine if any justice or significant action was made to address previous atrocities.

Our previous critique noted that absence of any reference to major incidents of religious freedom violations in Egypt such as the Maspero Massacre and the attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral stating, “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.”

As time passes and these major incidents are no longer in the spotlight, it relieves pressure on governments to acknowledge the violations of religious freedom and take the proper steps to seek justice for victims and ensure prosecution of perpetrators. The Maspero Massacre is a good example of a major religious freedom violation “dropping off the map” despite the Egyptian military being responsible for the murder of 27 Copts and injuring 327 individuals. To date, only two low-ranking soldiers—who remain free and continue to serve in their army units—have been found guilty of a misdemeanor of “involuntary killing,” in addition to a conviction against a Coptic protestor for “aggression against army personnel.” The massacre is still not officially recognized as such by the current administration while investigations have been unfruitful.

Coptic Solidarity fully agrees with AAL Saperstein’s opening remarks on the release of the 2015 report stating, “We believe that shining light on these problems is the best way to address them, and our report does just that.” Because the report plays such an important role in bringing attention to these religious freedom violations, Coptic Solidarity recommends this new section which would maintain the spotlight and pressure on governments to act, rather than allow these atrocities to fade into distant memory.

Coptic Solidarity recommends that the following topics be included in the 2016 Annual Report:

  • Inclusion of religious discrimination against Coptic athletes. Coptic Solidarity recently filed complaints with the IOC and FIFA regarding religious discrimination against Coptic athletes which can be referred to for more information
  • Update on the Maspero Massacre and lack of accountability or justice for the perpetrators, state media, and SCAF
  • Report on the massacre of the Two-Saints Church in Alexandria on 2011 New Year eve, and why the authorities still fail to uncover the truth on the perpetrators (often rumored to be related to one of the state’s security agencies)
  • Update on the Attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral and if any perpetrators or complicit police were held accountable
  • Report on the implementation of the new church building law passed by the Egyptian Parliament on August 30, 2016, including the number of applications to build churches, number of permits issued, and impact the new legislation has had on the church building/repair crisis
  • Report on the progress made in restoring or repairing burned, damaged, or otherwise destroyed Christian religious property and properties owned by Christians during the sectarian violence in August 2013, including a description of any discussion between officials of the Department of State and representatives of Egypt
  • Report on the continued exclusion, which has deteriorated under Mr. al-Sisi, of Copts from all ‘prominent’ posts in government, the army, the judiciary, the academia, state-owned media, and banks
  • Report on the targeting of Coptic women and girls for forced conversion and marriage to Muslims, including specific examples of cases and what the Egyptian government has done to address the crisis
  • Report on the case of Mohammed Hegazi, Bishoy Boulous, providing an update on the religious freedom violations he endured over many years and the pressure to reconvert to Islam
  •  Provide an explanation as to why the State Department has not designated Egypt a CPC. USCIRF has recommended that Egypt be designated a CPC every year since 2011 and the State Department has not explained why they believe Egypt does not meet the threshold for this designation

Coptic Solidarity is gravely concerned about the increasing incidences of attacks on the Coptic community in Egypt over the past several months which comes over and above the systematic, government-sponsored discrimination which Copts endure on daily basis. We believe the State Department’s Annual International Religious Freedom report has, and will continue, to provide crucial reporting on the deteriorating situation of religious Freedom in Egypt that will enable all concerned individuals and institution to partner together in an effort to chart a new course. Coptic Solidarity strongly believes that an Egypt that is free and just for all will overcome regressive forces, and urges Egyptian authorities and the global community to support the creation of a modern, equitable, just and prosperous Egypt.

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