By Coptic Solidarity –
On April 25, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report which monitors the state of religious freedom during the previous year (2021) for believers of all faiths and none. Additionally, USCIRF published Country Update: Egypt, in November 2021, which examines the state of religious freedom in much greater depth than the annual report. Coptic Solidarity’s annual analysis will address both the country update and Egypt section of the annual report, to better address the totality of USCIRF’s recent publications with our areas of agreement, constructive criticism, and recommendations for future reports.
Overall, both USCIRF publications address critical areas of religious freedom, important data, and recommendations to the Egyptian government, US Administration, and to the US Congress. Yet, there is a certain incongruity between the publications. For example, USCIRF reported that the situation of religious freedom in Egypt in 2021 “improved somewhat, …[despite] several systematic and ongoing obstacles to religious freedom remained.” The basis of this improvement is unclear as four paragraphs later, the report states that “The Egyptian government did not take visible, systematic efforts to address ongoing obstacles to religious freedom specified in USCIRF’s Annual Reports and recommendations from recent years, including in 2021.”
A likely explanation for such an inconsistency is that it is a reflection of competing views amongst USCIRF Commissioners and staff. Yet, another factor appears to be the format of the reporting and focusing on particular details to the exclusion, or reduction, of more important issues. The overall result is that one can easily miss the broader narrative and trajectory of religious freedom in Egypt.
As an NGO that has closely followed these annual reports and has published an analysis of each since 2014, Coptic Solidarity notes repetition of the same background information, legal challenges, and overarching systems of discrimination. There is also repetition of the same small gestures given as evidence of “improvement” of religious freedom in Egypt. Each year, there are some changes, but the overall narrative has changed very little since President el-Sisi came to power.
Through the repetition of some details (however important this may be, for the sake of continuity) and lack of a more detailed explanation of structural problems, the main obstacles are minimized. Conversely, when each “improvement” is examined individually, the result seems to magnify and obfuscate that the actual significance of these actions are minimal, and at times perpetuate or create greater obstacles. To better understand this dynamic in USCIRF reporting, we will first examine some of the systematic elements of religious discrimination in Egypt, as reported by USCIRF and explained by Coptic Solidarity.
STRUCTURAL IMPEDIMENTS TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Article 2 of the Constitution:
The USCIRF includes mention of the 2nd article of the Egyptian Constitution in each annual report, but without explicitly explaining the contradictory nature of a law based in shari’a that simultaneously “guarantees” freedom of religion.
The Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of religion and criminalizes 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 the shari’a repudiates religious freedom. The shari’a is founded on non-equality between a “Believer” (a Muslim) and a Non-believer in addition to non-equality between men and women. The shari’a also 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.
The USCIRF Country Report Update did include an explanation of how the judiciary and prosecutors utilize Article 2 “ostensibly of their own, independent volition” to target, silence, and imprison religious minorities. It is certainly true that most of Egypt’s judiciary and prosecutors are religiously “very conservative” if not outright Islamists. (Indeed, many are graduates of Al-Azhar university’s shari’a faculties while, on the other hand, Copts represent barely 2% of that population.) Yet, this discrimination could not continue unabated without high-level (at least implicit) support within the Egyptian state. In this way, USCIRF has shifted blame to prosecutors and the judiciary rather than acknowledge the Egyptian government’s role in the imprisonment and often accompanying horrific abuse of detainees for “crimes” such as apostasy, blasphemy, reporting on human rights abuses, or advocating. Again, these actions are all based in Article 2 and the dominance of the shari’a in all governance in Egypt.
USCIRF has rightly reported on the problematic nature of blasphemy laws in the Egyptian Criminal Code and recommended their removal. They have included concrete examples of how these laws are wielded against Christians, enlightened Muslims, and ‘atheists.’ USCIRF reports how the Egyptian judiciary gave prison sentences to seven individuals in 2020 on blasphemy charges and that another 14 were facing lawsuits, investigations, and even detention based on these laws. Importantly, USCIRF reports in the country update that “Egyptian officials have reiterated to USCIRF in recent years that the government is unlikely to fully repeal Law 98(f) any time soon. Without any concrete, systematic changes that would repeal or limit Law 98 (f), this statute will remain a serious impediment to Egypt’s stated intent to improve its religious freedom record.” Here, USCIRF is acknowledging that the Egyptian government has no plan to improve one of the worst forms of institutionalized religious discrimination in the country. USCIRF has recommended the repeal of Law 98(f) in their annual reports as well as in the country update.
National ID Cards:
USCIRF has recommended in their annual reports and country update that Egypt remove religious affiliation from national ID cards. Egypt is one of few countries that still requires religious affiliation to be listed on every government form/document, and as USCIRF reported “continue[s] to serve as a daily reminder that the government differentiates and divides citizens on the bases of religion from the day of their birth.” Unfortunately, USCIRF has not reported in detail just what a massive form of discrimination this comprises for individuals of no faith, of non-recognized faiths, and for those who have converted away from Islam. In addition to the obvious discrimination one can face each time presenting their ID card, this system imposes religious education on one’s children, the faith to be listed on the children’s ID cards, discrimination in sports and schools, and much more. There is no indication that the Egyptian government has any intention of removing religious affiliation from ID cards, although President el-Sisi reportedly “voiced vague support” for this removal. Given complete lack of action by the Egyptian government in other areas, there is no reason to believe, as USCIRF reports, that “[Sisi’s] comments allow for cautious optimism that Egypt may soon consider addressing this issue.”
Three Revealed Religions:
The Egyptian Constitution has numerous contradictory statements in regard to religious freedom, but a key one is from Article 64 which states: “Freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing places of worship for the followers of revealed religions is a right organized by law.”
Immediately after stating that freedom for religion is absolute, the constitution then immediately narrows down the right to practice and establish places of worship, to only revealed faiths, which are supposed to be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (leaving aside Islam’s views of the other two faiths as “corrupted.”) While USCIRF annual reports make slight mention of this point each year, it should be a point of great focus. Not being allowed to practice your faith or have houses of worship is not religious freedom. USCIRF has reported the bans on Baha’i since the 1960’s but dropped the recommendation to remove these bans from the 2021 recommendations. The outright banning of particular faiths should be included in USCIRF policy recommendations. USCIRF virtually ignores atheists (who come in different shades, mostly meaning agnostics or simply not to practice any of the “revealed” faiths) who are a rapidly growing population in Egypt despite not having an accurate estimate. The reason for this being the existence of the apostasy law and very real discrimination and even extrajudicial killing of those who leave Islam. The Egyptian government and the Islamic religious leaders have identified atheism (especially when exhibited or declared) as being a greater threat than even conversion to other religions. Coptic Solidarity urges the USICRF to place greater emphasis in their future reporting and interaction with the Egyptian government on this point of limiting recognition and practice to three faiths.
REPORTED IMPROVEMENTS IN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
USCIRF reporting on improvements in religious freedom in Egypt is akin to grasping at straws. When reviewing reported “improvements” it is important to keep in mind the sizeable impediments to religious freedom in Egypt. A helpful way to consider these issues is to think about whether or not they serve to improve the daily lives of the majority of Egypt’s indigenous Copts and other minorities.
2016 Church Law:
A frequently cited “improvement” is the passage of the 2016 Church Law, which both State and USCIRF contend has improved the Copts’ ability to build churches. Yet, as Coptic Solidarity has, with ample evidence repeatedly reported, the law is inherently discriminatory, as it treats houses of worship differently—openly outlining many more requirements for the building and repair of churches than for mosques. In other words, the much-touted 2016 Church Law has only legalized what was once an informal policy of discrimination. Since 2016, the Egyptian government has led activists on a merry chase, counting the number of church approvals and stringing along diplomats and US legislators with promises of improvement.
Unlike the State Department, the USCIRF has more accurately reported that the vast majority of church approvals are only preliminary, meaning the churches are still required to meet several onerous, expensive, and in short, hard to meet conditions, before they can gain actual approval. In reality, just a tiny percentage of all the Christian buildings and churches in the country that have applied for recognition have received final approvals and a welcome addition to the USCIRF 2021 annual report is the information that “construction of churches remained largely limited to new, government-planned cities.” Yet, USCIRF reporting is still missing critical information such as how many churches have been destroyed and closed since the 2016 Church Law was passed? How many communities still lack a single church because they cannot get approval to build one?
Oddly, the USCIRF 2021 report recommends Egypt “resume expeditious approval of church registrations under Law 80 of 2016.” The approvals were NEVER expeditious with the vast majority being merely preliminary. Neither the country update nor the 2021 report include updated statistics on the number of church approvals. According to USCIRFS 2020 report, “1,800 of the 5,515 applications received (32.6 percent) since the passage of Law 80/2016” had been approved. It has taken the Egyptian government more than six years to provide initial approve to far less than half the churches and affiliated buildings. The church law and its implementation are clearly not intended to actually increase or improve religious freedom. The law HAS provided one more avenue for obfuscation and bureaucracy to deny equality to Christians. The underling discrimination and lack of a unified church law that applies to all religious institutions equally SHOULD be the point of USCIRF’s focus.
President el-Sisi’s Statements:
USCIRF, the State Department, and many legislators have placed great emphasis on President el-Sisi’s call for a “renewal of religious discourse,” greater inclusion of non-Muslims in society, and annual visits to the Coptic Cathedral during Christmas Mass. While Coptic Solidarity welcomes such statements, they should be placed within context. Far too much optimism has been placed on the idea that these public statements would somehow improve life for religious minorities and influence Egyptian society.
Realistically, they are a few small scraps tossed for Western consumption, while President el-Sisi does nothing to address the systematic sources of discrimination and persecution. Moreover, he has overseen the worst crackdown and imprisonment of Christians, as well as of other minorities, numerous activists, and reporters than Egypt has seen in decades. There are countless other ways President el-Sisi could demonstrate a commitment to improving religious freedom such as inclusion of Copts in his cabinet, appointments of deans of universities, governors, judges, national security positions, insisting on allowing Copts and other minorities be able to compete in sports and represent Egypt internationally, etc. Coptic Solidarity has reported in great detail on the disparity between Egypt’s claims of improvement versus their actions and the true situation for Copts in Egypt. See our FACTS vs. FICTION: Coptic Solidarity’s Fact-Checking of the ‘Religious Freedom and Diversity’ Document Issued by the Embassy of Egypt in the U.S.A which addresses each claim, point by point.
Restoration of Holy Sites & Religious Tourism:
USICRF reported in their country update, “One area in which Egypt has demonstrated clear improvement has been the recognition and protection of heritage sites belonging to religious minorities, including the Christian, Jewish, and most recently Shi’a Muslim communities. These efforts included renovating a Coptic monastery and promoting sites from the Holy Family’s exile in Egypt, to renovating Jewish sites and restoring a cemetery and synagogue. Surprisingly, the Egyptian government announced plans to renovate several Shi’a shrines. Shi’a are often targeted ferociously for not believing in Sunni Islam. USICRF rightly stated that “it is unclear whether this enthusiasm for related religious tourism will extend to greater freedom for Egyptian Shi’a Muslims.”
Allowing, and helping with, these works is good, but would not be always necessary had these communities been allowed to conduct such repairs without government suffocating interventions. A perfect example of this is the Fifth-Century Saint Paul Monastery which suffered severe damage due to rain, yet the authorities did little, all while preventing the monks from doing any repairs.
Furthermore, restoring buildings is far easier and probably less controversial than changing laws and systems that are daily causing overt discrimination and persecution. t’s notable that the Egyptian government is only recently allowing renovations to Jewish properties (certainly as part of broader Middle-Eastern political posture), after such target persecution forced some 50,00 Jews to flee the country, and the tiny community that remains has dwindled to less than 20 individuals, as reported by USCIRF in 2020 and 2021.
Both the State Department and USCIRF report annually on Egypt’s “slow but tenacious” efforts to improve language in and promote tolerance for religious minorities through their public-school curriculum. Despite these claims, Coptic Solidarity has yet to find a US official at either entity who has actually seen or can verify these improvements to the textbooks. In the 2020 report, USCIRF recommended allocating a portion of US aid to assisting in these curriculum changes and in teacher training. They did not include that recommendation in the 2021 report, but did report on this issue as addressed in President el-Sisi’s new Human Rights Strategy and linked to an article by ADL who reviewed Egyptian textbooks for antisemitism. ADL reports there are mixed messages with many problematic teachings and references to Jews. Coptic Solidarity is not aware of any available analysis of how the Egyptian government and the separate al-Azhar curriculum have changed/improved teaching on religions other than Islam, on religious minorities and non [Sunni]-believers. Coptic Solidarity recommends that curriculum changes not be included as improvements in USCIRF reporting until they can independently verify the veracity of these claims.
The types of questions that should be addressed are:
- How can Egypt claim religious freedom and equality for all when the constitution continues to herald shari’a principles as THE main source of legislation and when the government only recognizes three faiths? Is it just for people of some faiths to be denied the right to build houses of worship, for others to be able to build them if they submit to an expensive and onerous process and the building could be destroyed or shut down at any time, and for yet another faith to build as many houses of worship as they like, wherever they like?
- Is there any hope for equal treatment under law when the case of an elderly grandmother, Soad Thabet, was acknowledged publicly by President el-Sisi, and six years later she is still deprived of justice while her known attackers live freely with no accountability for stripping her naked, beating her, and dragging her through her village?
- How can there be any equality when your religious affiliation is on your ID card and you are denied a job, given lower test scores at school, or rejected from a soccer club after passing the tryouts because you are judged by your faith, rather than your abilities?
- How can you protect your daughter, wife, or mother in a country when she could be “disappeared” (lured, if not outright kidnapped, by well-organized groups, tolerated by state organs) at any moment while walking to church, school, or visiting a friend?
These are some of the questions that Egypt’s Copts and other religious minorities face daily. Without drastic changes by the Egyptian government, they have little hope for their futures, which continues to fuel the exodus of Copts from Egypt.
There is always a certain disconnect between policy and implementation. The best of intentions and ideas do not always translate into positives in real people’s lives. Coptic Solidarity contends that the annual reporting by USCIRF is valuable and provides important guideposts by which one can learn about religious freedom in a country. Yet, the focus of many US Commissioners, legislators, and government officials has been sidetracked to ancillary issues.
Furthermore, it is noticed with deep concern that the Egyptian government’s relentless communications efforts (e.g., through PR entities or through organized trips to Egypt for staffers, etc.) appear to succeed in unduly improving the country’s image despite the lack of real progress on the ground. This has resulted in years of reporting with virtually no improvement in the daily life of Egypt’s indigenous Copts. For these reports and the policy recommendations to be effective, the focus must be placed on the main obstacles to the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for all Egyptians. When Egypt starts to address the real structural impediments to religious freedom, addressed in the questions above, then claims of improvement in religious freedom will no longer ring hollow.
The USCIRF placed Egypt on their Tier 2 list For three years (2017-2019), meaning Egypt engaged in or tolerated at least one of the three criteria—“egregious,” “systematic,” and “ongoing”—of religious freedom violations. In 2020 and 2021, the USCIRF placed Egypt on their Special Watch List for meeting the “systematic” and “ongoing” criteria of religious freedom violations. USCIRF recommended Egypt six consecutive times for the Country of Particular Concern status for the reporting years of 2011 – 2015. Before 2011, USCIRF merely noted that they were monitoring the situation in Egypt to see if it warranted a designation.
Who Informs USCIRF Reporting?
The overall assessment, edits to the annual report, and recommendations can only be understood within the context of who contributes to the reports. The USCIRF has highly qualified professional staff who are continually conducting research, liaising with NGOs, and advocating. When there is staff turnover, the primary individual for researching/writing about a country can change, as was the case with Egypt during the past year. High level management changes can also impact USCIRF’s perspective. Additionally, the individual Commissioners review the information and debate progress/regress and the overall narrative USCIRF wishes to convey. Commissioners are selected by the President, two by the leaders of the President’s party in Congress, and four by the congressional leaders of the party not in the White House. Commissioners are appointed for two-year terms and are eligible for reappointment. The diversity and perspective of individual Commissioners is always in flux, to some degree reflecting views of those who appointed them.