USCIRF’s 2019 Report on Egypt: An Assessment by Coptic Solidarity
(Washington, DC) May 6, 2019
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on April 29, including one of their best analyses of the situation of religious freedom in Egypt to date. Each year, Coptic Solidarity reviews the USCIRF report and publishes an assessment of the report including areas of agreement, constructive criticism, and recommendations for future reports. The 2019 USCIRF report includes numerous issues raised by Coptic Solidarity in the constructive criticism and recommendations sections from our assessment of last year’s report.
- The report reflects a more nuanced understanding of the state of religious freedom, particularly for Copts, than in previous years. This was visible in several areas in which more context was provided. A good example is how the report discusses the appointment of the first female Coptic governor, Manal Awad, to the governorate of Dumyat. The report also noted that Ms. Awad is the only Christian governor of the 27 governors in Egypt. Additionally, it underscored the exclusion of Copts appointed in areas of security, intelligence, and foreign service.
- The report clearly explained that the violence and discrimination perpetrated against Copts and other religious minorities is not primarily a result of foreign terrorists such as by ISIS… “Blaming Egypt’s sectarian issues on radical Islamist groups belies the reality that societal bigotry and government negligence also play roles in incidents of communal violence.” This is a major improvement over the narrative in the 2017 report and included good explanations of the Egyptian culture of intolerance and bigotry towards all non-Sunni Muslims as well as the government complicity in the continued persecution of Copts and other minorities.
- The report exposes the snail pace implementation of Church law 80/2016, reporting that only 783 Christian properties of the between 5,515 – 5, 540 that had applied for official registration were granted approval by March 2019. More importantly, it pointed out the these were already existing buildings and only 8 new churches were approved since the passage of Law 80/2016.
- USCIRF recommended not only expediting church approvals, as they did last year, but also recommended the Egyptian government initiate “a national discussion into supplanting that law (law 80/2016) with one that would uniformly apply to all houses of worship, regardless of religious affiliation.” This is an extremely important recommendation as many thought Law 80/2016 was an improvement for Christians in Egypt, when it actually institutionalized discrimination against Christians and non-Muslim minorities in their ability to build and repair houses of worship.
- In both the 2017 and 2018 reports, USCIRF highlighted the issue of impunity for those who attack Copts, their homes, businesses, and churches, and the tardiness of security forces in intervening to protect Coptic victims of violence. They also emphasized how the use of reconciliation sessions undermines the justice system by nearly always resulting in Copts being forced to cede their legal rights and perpetrators escaping punishment. In this report, USCIRF calls on the US Government to pressure the Egyptian government to immediately put an end the use of these sessions to resolve “incidents of anti-Christian mob violence.”
- Improved the recommendation on Congress’s role from encouraging the US government to focus on reporting of Egypt’s progress on protecting religious freedom, to recommending that the State Department “provide justification for the release of any foreign military financing withheld to Egypt, including public disclosure of its assessment and certification of Egypt’s progress…” This recommendation is indispensable as the Secretary of State has continued to override Congress by releasing aid to Egypt utilizing the national security waiver when Congress has withheld aid due to human rights and religious freedom violations. This has resulted in the State Department removing the best incentive for Egypt to improve religious freedom and undermines the work of Congress and civil society.
- Included information on the unique challenges women and girls face in Egypt such as the alarmingly high rates of female genital mutilation and sexual harassment. Additionally, the report discussed the ongoing issue of Coptic women and girls being kidnapped, forcibly married to Muslims, and converted to Islam. Cultural sensitives and difficulty in obtaining accurate reporting due to the stigma and pressure applied to those who escape, make it exceedingly difficult to get solid data on the issue. USCIRF drew much needed attention to this issue that other government entities have hesitated to address.
- Noted the complicity of local imams in inciting Muslim mobs to violence against Copts and the direct participation by police in the violence, or by failing to protect Christians.
- Noted that despite opening the Cathedral of the Nativity in January 2019, at least eight other churches were closed in the same year by local authorities contravening Egyptian law and submitting to pressure from Islamist mobs. The report also highlights how only 8 new structures have been approved since the passage of Law 80 in 2016, which is a slower rate of approval than during Mubarak’s rule, three of which were given for new developments and do not serve any of the current areas that already experience a major shortage of churches.
- Rightly noted that President el-Sisi’s formation of a committee to combat sectarianism is… “a generally positive, symbolic move, it failed to include even a single representative from the country’s Christian community.” While some religious leaders have lauded this action, USCIRF placed this development in its proper context.
- The report mentions statements made by Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, to USCIRF Commissioners in person and at the opening of the Church of the Nativity, which affirm and promote religious freedom. Unfortunately, these statements made to Americans and with the Western audience in mind, directly contradict the message Sheikh El-Tayeb regularly preaches to Arabic Muslim audiences and teaches at al-Azhar. Coptic Solidarity recently published a report titled, A Glimpse Into the Mindset of Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, The Grand Imam of al-Azhar on this very issue. This report exposes Sheik el-Tayeb’s “double talk” and deceptive behavior. Coptic Solidarity recommends that all USCIRF Commissioners and relevant staff become acquainted with a broader picture of the Sheikh’s statements and true positions on religious freedom prior to future engagements.
- Coptic Solidarity continues to urge that Egypt be placed on USCIRF’s recommend CPC list. USCIRF placed Egypt on their Tier 2 list for the third year in a row, meaning they engage in or tolerate at least one of the three elements in the standard of “systematic, ongoing, or egregious” violations. The report does not indicate which or if multiple elements have been reached in their view. Publicizing this information would afford more credibility to USCIRF’s recommendations and allow for a robust dialogue and engagement on areas of disagreement. Coptic Solidarity welcomes any and all positive changes. Ultimately, it must be acknowledged that several of the seemingly positive changes which could have led to removing Egypt from USCIRF’s recommended CPC list are merely symbolic and not substantive.
- The report did not include information on the rising number of Coptic soldiers serving in Egypt’s Armed Forces who have been killed in their units under suspicious circumstances with their killings attributed to suicide, a rare occurrence among Christians, or to sudden medical conditions.
Recommendations for Future Reports
- CS continues to recommend adding a follow-up section to the report that would delineate more clearly major incidents and track what actions have been taken to prosecute perpetrators, and if any reparations have been made to the victims. The USCIRF report this year mentioned a few of these incidents which is helpful. CS recommends expanding this to include incidents such as the Maspero Massacre, the multiple church bombings, the attacks on pilgrims to the St Samuel Monastery, and individual acts of violence against Copts and their properties. This would bring greater continuity to the report and increase accountability to the culture of impunity in Egypt.
- CS recommends that USCIRF require its Commissioners to separate their personal trips to Egypt from those they make in an official capacity, particularly when making public statements. USCIRF is applauded for its objectivity and neutrality. It is no secret that the Egyptian government has targeted and invited Evangelical Commissioners to convince them of its narrative of tolerance and commitment to religious freedom, contrary to facts on the ground. Confusion between personal and official roles has been observed when some Commissioners have made inaccurate and misleading public statements about the state of religious freedom in Egypt in their personal capacities. USCIRF should not allow itself to be manipulated by the Egyptian government which has already successfully manipulated Egypt’s Christian leadership. Unfortunately, many in the public are unaware of these individual’s dual roles. Therefore, a Commissioner’s support is easily and inappropriately mistaken for acceptance and support by a US governmental entity.
- Coptic Solidarity would remind USCIRF Commissioners of the gravity of their role and responsibility in making statements of acceptance of systematic discrimination and persecution for Egyptian Christians that they would not find acceptable as US citizens. The role of USCIRF Commissioners demands wisdom, humility, and expertise to support religious freedom for all, rather than merely making determinations of what is an acceptable level of religious freedom for others.
Photo Credit: Joel C. Rosenberg’s Blog