By Coptic Solidarity
June 17, 2020
The State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom (IRF) report last week on June 10, 2020, covering 2019. Each year, Coptic Solidarity (CS) provides an analysis of the Egypt chapter. The report follows a similar format each year. CS provided a comprehensive overview of the systematic discrimination Copts face in Egypt through various report categories in our July 2019 analysis titled, Annual State Department Report Confirms Systematic Discrimination Against Religious Minorities in Egypt.
As no significant improvement has been made to achieve equal citizenship rights for Copts or greater religious freedom in 2019, CS will this year address the areas in which the State Department appears to believe Egypt has improved, and comprises the majority of new content in this year’s Egypt report.
The 2019 report says, “the government approved 814 applications to license churches and related buildings during the year, and since, September 2017, approved 1,412 of the 5, 415 pending applications to license of churches and related buildings.”
While this statistic may appear positive at first glance, it is misleading. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a mere 200 churches of the 5,515 (USCIRF & State’s total # of applications are not the same) churches and related facilities that applied for official regularization, have gained FINAL approvals. The remainder still have to fulfill often onerous conditions, none of which apply to mosques.
The 2018 IRF report cites the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) saying that 9 churches were closed in the year. This 2019 report again cites EIPR stating: “security forces were responsible for the closure of 22 unlicensed churches, with up to four closed during the year. According to Egypt’s 2016 Church Law, all these existing churches without official registration were to be permitted to operate freely until they receive final approvals. To date, only 25% of those buildings have received a preliminary or final approval.” As the 2019 report rightly notes, the 2016 law is in itself “contrary to their right to equal citizenship.” (pg16).
Proponents of the Egyptian government often point to the newly constructed Cathedral of the Nativity and the new church permits in Egypt as if this is evidence of improved religious freedom. The 2019 report accurately quotes Bishop Makarious of Minya who has said that an estimated 150 villages and neighborhoods in his diocese are in need of a church or related structure. As USCIRF reported, few new church permits have been granted in new construction zones, but not in the existing communities that still lack houses of worship. The new Cathedral is located in the yet-to-be inhabited administrative capital and does not have regular services. It is essentially a “show church.”
Could this situation be considered an improvement?
- The 2016 church law is inherently discriminatory and does not treat churches on equal terms with mosques.
- However deficient, the law is not even being followed by the Egyptian government, as it continues with church closures and granting conditional approvals at a snail’s pace.
- Baha’is are not allowed to have houses of worship, nor are recognized as an official religion.
- The report states that only 6-10 Jews are left in Egypt yet recognizes the Egyptian government’s “multimillion-dollar effort to restore the Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue.” Egyptian authorities claim” the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and very small remaining community, and that this was a reflection of a broader policy of stressing the government’s commitment to safeguarding religious diversity and freedom” (pgs. 18-19). This so-called commitment by the Egyptian government is laughable given the rampant anti-Semitism promoted by government officials, through news and television shows, and in nearly every other aspect of society. Restoring a synagogue when there are fewer than 10 Jews left in the country is a (welcome) symbolic gesture for regional political reasons, but in no way indicative of greater religious freedom.
Violence & Impunity
The overall picture the report gives could lead one to believe that the Egyptian government has made significant strides in addressing impunity, but the reality is that those cases are few and far between, and only time will demonstrate if they are enforced.
- The report mentions imprisoned Coptic activist Ramy Kamel which is important. No other Coptic prisoners of conscience were mentioned, nor what or if the US government is working to secure their release.
- The report refers to Eshhad reporting of a 29% reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 – 2019. We do have a serious reservation on the term “intercommunal violence,” as “attacks on Copts” would be more factual. Considering the high level of violence against Copts, that reduction in violence, which refers to major incidents that attract attention, does not indicate a significant change when all other discriminatory factors are taken into account, especially the ongoing issue of impunity.
- The report lists a number of sentences given to those who have attacked Copts or their properties. There were more sentences during the past year, but whether or not they are carried out is yet to be seen for many of them. Some of the sentences involved attacks on police stations etc. at same time as attacking a church, and hence it’s never clear what the sentence is really about. Death penalty sentences such as the ones mentioned in the report are rarely carried out and typically shuffled around. (See CS 2018 analysis for more details)
- One case mentioned is that of Souad Thabet, an elderly Coptic woman who in 2016 was stripped naked and paraded through the streets of her village based on a mere accusation against her son of having an affair with a Muslim woman. Mrs. Thabet is still unable to return to her home and the case has been moved around amidst numerous developments. More than four years later, she still has no closure or justice. Hers is just one example of numerous others.
Egyptian Government Claims
The report notes various claims made by the Egyptian government which undoubtedly are intended to demonstrate efforts at reform. Unfortunately, it is unclear if a number of these claims have been validated by anyone outside of the Egyptian government.
- The Ministry of Education is developing a new curriculum that “included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.” It appears that they roll out a new grade each year having started with Kindergarten, 1st grade in the previous reporting period, and 2nd grade in this reporting period. Have these textbooks been independently checked to verify what these reforms actually are?
- Al -Azhar has its own school system with separate curriculum ranging from elementary to secondary school and serves about 2 million students. The “Al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced its introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance in the 11,000 schools under its purview. Again, have these textbooks been independently checked to verify what these reforms actually are?
- The Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents was formed in 2018. However, no Christian is a member of this obscure committee which has held one known meeting after an incident on April 11 and issued no statement or follow-up after meeting. It appears the committee is purely for show.
- The report notes that Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together as well as mentioning multiple diplomatic meetings with El-Tayyeb. As CS and many others have documented, El-Tayyeb gives a tolerant, friendly response in these meetings to US leaders, yet simultaneously preaches inequality and discrimination to his Arabic -speaking audience in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. Continuing to cite these meetings as positive without requiring any accountability nor recognizing his double-speak is counterproductive to the Coptic community, and indeed all religious minorities in Egypt including Baha’i, Jews and Shi’a Muslims. No evidence has been presented to confirm any of these “initiatives” being undertaken by El-Tayyeb and Al-Azhar.
- One of the most condescending claims, “Dar al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.” (pg 18). Al-Azhar is publicly funded including by religious minorities. This statement encapsulates the real situation of Copts in Egypt, relegated to a lower status, lucky to receive a few minor concessions when the government deigns.
- This report and previous ones continue to reference work of the Family House, which the Egyptian government claims was created between Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church and other religious leaders to “defuse community tensions following sectarian violence.” The Family House should not be considered a legitimate entity in reducing violence or creating greater religious freedom.:
- In reality, the Family House was founded by the state’s security apparatus to eschew the government’s responsibility in combatting “religious strife” by projecting the matter as inter-religious disputes to be resolved between Al-Azhar (who has the upper hand) and the Christian Churches.
- As a result, it has been used as a tool for greater repression of the Coptic minority such as through the use of informal reconciliation sessions instead of taking perpetrators to court. As mentioned above, in reality there is no “religious strife,” “inter-communal violence” or “sectarian violence” in Egypt. The violence invariably originates with (fanaticized) Muslims attacking Copts and their properties.
- The Family House has done nothing to facilitate the opening of more churches or to assist with those churches illegally closed in the last few years.
- The Family House is used as a tool to push Coptic businesspeople to pay for repairing attacked churches or compensate Coptic victims rather than having the governorate, or those at cause, covering the expenses.
- The Family House has done nothing to intervene in the many cases of kidnapped Coptic women and underaged girls who are forcibly converted to Islam and often forcibly married. In the recent case of the wife and mother of three girls, Ranya Abd Al-Masih, the Family House has done absolutely nothing to assist with her return, despite her husband being an active member. Indeed, in a rare case of showing dissatisfaction openly, the local diocese denounced the Family House in a recent statement.
The vast majority of the items intended as improvements which have been included in the 2019 IRF report on Egypt are built on verbal proclamations, nominal actions meant for “external consumption,” or actions that are half-measures such as with preliminary church approvals that are in reality delayed or derailed prior to achieving the near impossible final official status.
If one looks at the whole picture of everyday life for Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt, a very clear portrayal of second class citizenship emerges. See Coptic Solidarity’s list, updated this year, which provides clear evidence. Not one of these items on the CS list has been addressed by the Egyptian government in this reporting period in a serious way that would create any meaningful improvement in the everyday lives of Copts.
When US diplomats, legislators, and religious leaders allow themselves to be distracted by a few positive sounding claims, they lose sight of the overall situation. False claims of improvement, such as those made by Joel Rosenberg at the 2nd Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom within the walls of the State Department, left unchallenged or rectified by the US government, undermine civil society efforts to achieve equal citizenship rights for religious minorities, to improve human right and overall religious freedom for all in Egypt.
Photo Credit: Churches were closed due to clashes that erupted from extremists (AFP/File)