In CS Releases & Articles

By Coptic Solidarity – 
July 9, 2019

On June 21, 2019, the State Department released its annual report on International Religious Freedom, which documents the state of religious freedom in 200 countries and territories worldwide except for the United States. This report was mandated with the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, sponsored by former Congressman Frank Wolf. Annual publication not only represents that religious freedom is an important component of US foreign policy, but it provides a consistent body of evidence that has been invaluable in bringing accountability to countries and individuals committing religious freedom violations.

Each year, Coptic Solidarity publishes a response analysis to the Egypt chapter of the report. In it, we typically highlight the strengths of the report, areas of disagreement, and recommendations for improvement. Overall, the 2018 report is an excellent overview of the state of religious freedom in Egypt and there are many positives. The greatest strength of this report is that it definitively demonstrates systematic violations against religious minorities by the Egyptian government. Instead of highlighting positives broadly, this year we will focus on the narrative the report paints in terms of systematic discrimination against religious minorities.

The report achieves this primarily through illuminating how the Egyptian government treats individuals differently, based on their faith. The majority who are Sunni Muslim have a preferred status in legal matters, education, employment, and in society. Christians, Jews (the 7 remaining in Egypt) are officially recognized faiths, but all “non-Abrahamic” faiths, such as Baha’i, are not officially recognized, and therefore unable to obtain places of worship, hold events, or in the case of atheists (who must still be “assigned” a religion on their ID card), are targeted for harassment and imprisonment if they dare exhibit their lack of faith.

Living under systematic governmental discrimination equates to life as second-class citizens for all religious minorities in Egypt. Below are many of the areas this report cites which explain the situation.

I. Systematic Religious Discrimination

  • Shari’a – The Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and criminalized discrimination based on religion. Yet, the second article of the Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic shari’a are the main sources of legislation.”
    • These statements are antithetical since shari’a repudiates religious freedom. Since it is founded on the non-equality between a Believer (a Muslim) and a Non-believer (and also between men and women), it actually proscribes discrimination and persecution of minority faiths. The Egyptian government cannot implement contradictory principles. Since all the constitutional articles are to be interpreted in light of and in submission to Article 2, shari’a always takes precedence and is the primary form of institutionalized discrimination by the Egyptian government. * see Appendix 1 for court ruling.
    • The report notes that Egypt is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), yet joined with the reservation that provisions of the covenant not conflict with shari’a. As with the Egyptian constitution, this is again asserting the supremacy of Sharia over the ICCPR, and Egypt’s status is incompatible with the rights guaranteed in this important human rights instrument.
  • Al-Azhar institution is enshrined in the constitution as “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs.” The constitution also requires the Egyptian government to provide sufficient funding for it to achieve its various educational and da’wa purposes, while there is no similar provision for government funding to other faiths.
    • Egypt’s 2018 budget allocated 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($726.66 million)
    • Non-Muslims are not allowed to enroll in al-Azhar unless they are able to memorize and recite the Quran.
    • Al -Azhar has its own school system with separate curriculum ranging from elementary to secondary school and serves about 2 million students. Additionally, there are 320,000 students enrolled in Al-Azhar University, the largest university in Egypt, studying in 76 faculties with campuses spread throughout the country. Graduates of Al-Azhar high school are also entitled to enter army and police academies.
    • The research Center of al-Azhar has the authority to censor and confiscate any publications, speeches, recordings, or art deemed inconsistent with Azhar’s views on Islam and their interpretation if Islamic law
  • Houses of Worship – The Egyptian government does not apply a single law equally for the building and repair of mosques, churches, and synagogues.
    • The Parliament passed a law in 2016 to regulate Christian churches and buildings. Existing churches without permits were to be “grandfathered in” and receive permits. Only 783 churches of the 5,415 applications have received permits.
    • Since 2017, the Egyptian government has only approved construction of 14 new churches.
    • The country’s 27 governors are responsible to approve church applications within 4 months of submission and rejections are to be accompanied by a written explanation. There is no recourse for churches who are denied permits.
    • Church applications are subject to the government’s view (essentially that of the state security apparatus) on “number and need,” and strict land registration procedures that are not required for mosques which can be built freely.
    • The Egyptian government appoints Imams and pays their salaries. Christian and other minority faith leaders receive no government compensation.
    • The Egyptian government has ordered the shuttering of multiple churches in direct contravention of law. EIPR has documented “15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalizations of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.”
  • Family Law & Government Registration of Faith
    • Every Egyptian must have their faith listed on their ID card. The only options are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and now a dash for Baha’i.
    • The Ministry of Interior determines which faith is listed on an individual’s card, preventing reflecting conversion unless converting TO Islam. If a child is born to a mixed family with a Muslim parent, they are registered as Muslim regardless of the faith they practice. If a parent converts to Islam after a child is born, the MOI immediately changes the child’s faith to Muslim in their database.
    • A Christian man is forbidden from marrying a Muslim woman unless he converts to Islam. A Muslim man may marry a Christian woman.
    • If a married man leaves Islam, his marriage to a Muslim woman is immediately dissolved.
    • In the case of divorce with a mixed -faith marriage, the Muslim parent will always get custody of children.
    • Canonical laws of Jews and Christians are supposed to govern personal and family affairs of individuals listed of those faiths by the MOI. There is no equality under Egyptian law as each person is subjected to the law governing their “listed” faith. All legal matters involving multiple faiths will be adjudicated under shari’a
    • Canonical laws of Jews and Christians do not apply on issues of inheritance and child adoption, which are subjected to shari’a for all. In case of a divorce of a Christian couple belonging to two different denominations, shari’a rules apply.
    • Any individual may convert to Islam and have faith on their ID changed. If one converts away from Islam, the MOI will not change the faith on their ID card. In this way, converts and their children will continue to be listed as Muslims, subjected to shari’a, and forced to study Islam in public school despite not being Muslim.
    • Reverting to Christianity is sometimes tolerated, but it requires an elaborate process, which includes church documentation, an ID card, and fingerprints. None of these are required when reverting to Islam.
  • Blasphemy Law – While it is supposedly illegal to denigrate other faiths, a disproportionate amount (41% in 2016) were brought against Christians. Blasphemy laws undermine personal freedom and attempt to protect an undefinable entity, “faith.”
  • Discrimination in Employment
    • There is one Coptic Minister in the government, Ms. Nabial Makram. She is the minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs and has virtually no duties in her portfolio, making it a token appointment. In the past there used to be two, occasionally three, Coptic ministers in each cabinet; however, this “tradition” was disrupted by President el-Sisi four years ago.
    • President el-Sisi appointed two Coptic governors in the last year, to Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, a commendable decision; although Copts represent at least 10% of the population, there are still only 2 out of 27 governors and 18 deputy governors.
    • There are no Copts serving as president in any of the government’s 25 public universities; Last year a Copt was appointed Dean of the dental school at Cairo University.
    • Christians are still seriously underrepresented and rarely promoted in government positions, military services, and totally absent in various “critical” services such as security apparatuses and the presidency’s administration.
    • A Coptic judge was reportedly denied a promotion to the Administrative prosecution due to her faith; a Muslim colleague who objected to the discrimination against her was fired.
    • A Coptic military conscript, Matthew Habib, was murdered in his unit and officials ruled it a suicide. Over the past few years, over a dozen such cases were revealed, with no credible explanation from the military authorities.
    • There is not a single Copt on the national Egyptian soccer team, and only 1 Copt played for one of the top tier 18 soccer clubs in the past year.
  • Collective Punishment & Reconciliation Sessions
    • The use of these community sessions to settle “disputes” are utilized when Muslim mobs attack Copts and their properties. It is a way of circumventing police reports, legal charges, and justice for Coptic victims. Copts are typically pressured to retract statements and charges in exchange for “protection” in their villages, or for the release of imprisoned Copts.
    • During these incidents of communal violence when Muslim mobs attack Copts, their homes, and churches, local police typically arrest both Copts and Muslims, despite culpability. The arrested Copts are used as bargaining chips to assure Coptic cooperation.
    • This report includes numerous examples of arresting Copts after they have been attacked by Muslim mobs such at a protest in Esna regarding worship at an unregistered church in August 2018, when five Christians were arrested. Another example is from an attack by Muslim villagers in Beni Meinin regarding an unregistered church. Forty-five Muslims and Christians were arrested and then all released after a reconciliation session. The church remained unlicensed and closed.

II. Overall Recommendations

Coptic Solidarity has no major areas of disagreement with the 2018 report.

Due to the annual reporting format, there are some topics and issues that could be misunderstood without more context or expertise in this field. Below we highlight some of these areas that would benefit from greater clarity.

  • Shari’a – Islam as a religion of state and shari’a as the main source of legislation enshrined in article 2 of the Egyptian constitution negates articles mandating religious freedom and forbidding discrimination based on religion. The same applies for Egypt being a party to the ICCPR.
  • Lack of Legal Action – Impunity for crimes against Copts, their homes and businesses, and churches has been a major factor in continued and increasing attacks on Copts. This annual report includes the sentences and punishments given to perpetrators who have attacked Copts, which is a real positive. However, the report should consider the final, rather than the preliminary ruling, and whether a sentence is actually implemented. Unfortunately, the Egyptian government often does not carry out sentences on perpetrators of those who attack Copts.
    • Since the report covers a single year, the Egyptian government receives the benefit of being perceived as taking legal action against these perpetrators, with no accountability on whether or not sentences are actually enforced.
    • In the past year, 2 individuals were given final death penalty sentences for killing Copts. There was irrefutable video evidence as well as admission to guilt in both cases. These cases involved the murders of Fr. Samaan Shehata and Youssef Lamei. (* Note 1)
    • An example of this problem is illustrated in the case of Souad Thabet, an elderly Coptic woman who was stripped naked, beaten, and paraded through her village, Karm in Minya, by a mob of about 300 Muslim villagers on May 20, 2016. The attack was based on mere rumors that her son was having an affair with a Muslim woman. After the incident, Egyptian authorities dropped the case against 3 of Ms. Thabet’s attackers due to “lack of evidence,” despite many witnesses. Then in February of 2017, the case was reinstated, only to be suspended on March 17 when the court recused itself. As of this writing, Ms. Thabet’s attackers still have not been fully prosecuted or sentenced.
  • Penal Code for Religious Discrimination – The report cites how religious discrimination is criminalized in Egypt and details the consequences for engaging in this crime. Presumably the report refers to the law issued in Oct. 2011, shortly after the “Revolution,” which appears to have been dormant ever since. It would hence be helpful to have some examples of how/if this code was applied to any individuals who have practiced discrimination against Copts and other religious minorities. Worthy of mention is that the new constitution adopted in 2014 calls (Art. 53) for the creation of an anti-discrimination commission; this, however, was never accomplished to this date.
  • The Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb – The report describes a conference co-hosted by Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church addressing terrorism. It also mentions that senior US officials met with the Sheikh during the past year as well as meetings with Pope Francis in the Vatican. Coptic Solidarity has spoken with officials who have participated in some of these meetings. It is clear that many of these officials believe that el-Tayeb is being honest in the conversations, and truly wants to promote religious freedom. This is a dangerous misconception, because el-Tayeb has been shown repeatedly to deliver one message to his Western audience that supports human rights and religious freedom, while simultaneously preaching an opposing message to his Arabic-speaking audience in Egypt and the Middle East. The US government will not make real progress in these meetings or events towards greater religious freedom without understanding the Sheikh’s intentional deception. For this reason, Coptic Solidarity published a report on the topic in March 2019. The report is titled A Glimpse into the Mindset of Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, The Grand Imam of al-Azhar and is critical to understanding the most important religious leader in Egypt (who has a lifetime appointment and cannot be replaced even by a presidential decree) and what he teaches through the publicly funded al-Azhar institutions.

In conclusion, the 2018 Egypt International Religious Freedom report published by the State Department is a fairly comprehensive overview of the state of religious freedom in Egypt. The reality it portrays is inconsistent with some overly positive statements regarding progress in religious freedom in Egypt made by Secretary Pompeo and other government officials. Were the US government to raise these issues of systematic discrimination and hold the Egyptian government to account for this discrimination against religious minorities, it could provide the requisite incentive to achieve greater equality for Copts, and a departure from their lives as second class citizens in their homeland.

Coptic Solidarity recommends that Egypt be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the State Department. The evidence presented in this report, in addition to Coptic Solidarity’s documentation of the state of religious freedom in Egypt, indicate violations meeting the standard for the CPC designation of “systematic, ongoing, or egregious violations.” USCIRF placed Egypt on their Tier 2 list for the third year in a row, (May 2019) meaning they engage in or tolerate at least one of the three elements in the standard of “systematic, ongoing, or egregious” violations. Neither the State Department nor USCIRF report indicates which, or if multiple elements have been reached in their view. Publicizing this information would afford more credibility to both entity’s recommendations and allow for a robust dialogue and engagement on areas of disagreement.

(*) Note 1 – Before the preliminary death ruling is issued, the approval of the Grand Mufti is required (in order to ensure compliance with shari’a). But in all cases where a death penalty is pronounced, the Public Prosecutor asks for (and is granted) the opportunity to submit the case to the higher-level court, the Court of Cassation, to retry the case. If the death penalty is affirmed, in a process that could take years, only then would it be enforced (unless the defendant gets a presidential pardon). The death penalty is annulled in the majority of cases

Appendix 1

Ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court issued in its session dated May 18, 1996 in case #8 of the Judiciary Year # 17 ( Translated to English by Adel Guindy.

Whereas the Supreme Constitutional Court’s rulings are consistent with the fact that the provisions of the Constitution in its second article, amended in 1980, state that the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation; they result in a restriction that the legislative and executive branches must enact and submit to in all their legislations issued after this amendment – including the provisions of resolution no. 113 of 1994, interpreted by resolution No. 208 of 1994 contested [in this case] – since a legislative text may not contradict the provisions of the legitimate peremptory of Shari’a in its provenance and significance, since these provisions alone are where ijtihad [innovation ] is abstaining, because they represent the overall principles and fundamentals of Islamic Sharia that can not be construed or swapped.

It is therefore inconceivable that their understanding [interpretation] will change according to the change of time and space, as it cannot be adjusted, and it is not permissible to break it, or to twist it out of its meaning. The mandate of the Supreme Constitutional Court is [limited to] monitoring compliance [to principles of Shari’a] and to give it precedence over any rule of law that conflicts with it. This is because the second article of the Constitution gives precedence over rules of law to the provisions of the Islamic Shari’a in their global fundamentals and principles, as they represent its general framework and inherent pillars which shall always impose their commandments in such a way as to prevent the adoption of any rule of law that may not comply to them; otherwise it would be regarded as disrespect and denial of what is considered to be necessarily known of religion [..]”

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