By Coptic Solidarity –
The US Department of State released its Report on International Religious Freedom on June 2, 2022. This annual report examines the state of religious freedom in every country except the US, in accordance with the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Each year, Coptic Solidarity (CS) provides an analysis of the Egypt chapter including our areas of agreement, constructive criticism, and recommendations for future reports. Analyses from previous years are enclosed at the end of this document.
Coptic Solidarity’s overall constructive evaluation to this report is:
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.
This evaluation happens to be the same as that of the recently published Coptic Solidarity Analysis of USCIRF 2022 Report, although the State Department and USCIRF reports each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
We are quite alarmed by the fact that in the last year, asylum officers in the U.S. have cited both the State Department and USCIRF reports as evidence that Copts fleeing Egypt do not need asylum in the United States. This development demonstrates the very real impact such reports have on lives of individuals escaping persecution and discrimination. It is another reason that Coptic Solidarity continues to critically analyze each report and make recommendations for greater accuracy.
- The report cited for the first time that the Egyptian Parliament has failed to establish an independent commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination as directed in the 2014 Constitution. Coptic Solidarity urged reporting on this in the Recommendations Section of our analysis of the 2021 State Department report.
- For the first time, the report cited Coptic Solidarity’s well-documented claims regarding discrimination against Coptic athletes, preventing them from representing Egypt in the Olympics and top tier football clubs. (page 28). Coptic Solidarity urged reporting on this in the Recommendations Section of our analysis of the 2021 State Department report.
- The report also prominently notes that while Egypt is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it did so with a reservation that the covenant not conflict with Shari’a. Coptic Solidarity has frequently published on this problem because the Shari’a contradicts various articles, including Article 18 on religious freedom, and it is impossible for Egypt’s government to uphold antithetical ideals as in fact Shari’a always takes precedence.
- Coptic Solidarity previously urged the State Department to include that Coptic prisoner of conscience, Ramy Kamel, was imprisoned specifically for his cooperation with the UN, and accepting an invitation to speak at a UN event in Geneva which would further expose the Egyptian government’s discrimination against Copts. This report included that critical piece of information, an important aspect of increasing accountability with the Egyptian government.
- The report demonstrated the Egyptian government’s common “bait and switch” tactics with the case of imprisoned activist Khalil Rizk who was told he had permission to attend church services in the first ever facticity built at Wadi al-Natroun. Despite assurances, Mr. Rizk was denied a visit by a Coptic priest as well as the ability to attend Christmas prayers.
- The State Department continues to shy away from reporting on the epidemic of trafficking of Coptic women and minor girls. They made brief mention in the 2021 report, and immediately undermined credibility of the issue by citing a report by MTGI claiming only 13 girls had been abducted since October 2019.To emphasize the severity of the trafficking of Coptic women, even the notoriously diplomatic H.H. Pope Tawadros II spoke out publicly about it in 2022.
- The report claims that “Observers stated that President Sisi also had several senior Christian advisors.” This is an extremely vague – and certainly false – claim that seems peculiar. If the advisors truly were in those positions of influence, surely their names would be known, and “observers” need not be anonymous.
- Impunity persists! While a number of updates were given on cases of individuals accused of crimes against Copts, the Egyptian government continues to succeed with the game of publicizing verdicts which are in turn reported by the USCIRF and State Department, only for the vast majority to be overturned (or simply drop into oblivion) and prisoners released when attracting less attention. The case of Soad Thabet perfectly exemplifies this problem.
- 2016 Church Law
- Rather than directly urging a unified houses of worship law, the report cites an NGO (EIPR) as calling for this type of unified law… Coptic Solidarity has, with ample evidence repeatedly reported that the law is inherently discriminatory, as it treats houses of worship differently—openly outlining numerous requirements for the building and repair of churches vs. none whatsoever for mosques. The 2016 Church Law has only legalized outdated dhimmi-related regulations (as well as informal policy of discrimination) and the State Department should push for an equal law rather than acclaim a discriminatory one that has also failed its purported purpose.
- The State Department again neglected to report 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 – if not impossible – to meet conditions, before they can gain actual approval. In reality, just a small percentage of all the Christian buildings and churches in the country that have applied for recognition have received final approvals.
- The report states that 2,021churches and service buildings have been granted legal status since 2017, with no indication of how many of these are final approvals, nor the context of the percentage approved of all that have applied. Based on the State Department’s 2021 OIRF report, 5,415 churches and related buildings had applied for permits. Only about 37% of the buildings have received any type of approval since 2017!
- The report also says that the “Coptic Papal Office, local bishoprics, and Coptic media expressed positive views about the pace of church registration and construction five years after the passage of the 2016 law,” without a mention of the well-known, intense pressure and likely repercussions placed on these religious leaders and outlets should they not express support.
- Ensure balanced reporting so that “improvements” do not give a disproportionately positive image of the situation for religious minorities in Egypt. This is critical so that – among other things – asylum officers referring to the OIRF report will not deny asylum requests for Egyptians facing imminent persecution and discrimination should they be deported.
- CS reiterates our recommendation from 2021: Urge Egypt to pass a unified houses of worship law or at least complete the entire process of church-authorization (according to the 2016 Church Law) in a specific time frame of 12 months.
- CS urges the State Department to vigorously advocate the removal of religious affiliation from IDs and all forms. 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.”
- CS urges the State Department to report on and advocate for individuals such as former Counselor Hisham Heikal who is suffering punitive measures by the Egyptian Government as a direct result of him filing a complaint regarding discrimination against a Coptic colleague. The Egyptian government’s reprisals against Mr. Heikal have set a clear precedent that those who dare speak out against official religious discrimination in Egypt will endure great personal loss and suffering.
- Urge Egypt to end the dual system of religious and secular education. 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 constitution 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.
- Copts are still seriously underrepresented and are subjected to a ‘glass ceiling’ in entries to the military and police academies, the various branches of the judiciary positions and the diplomatic corps. They are totally absent in various “sensitive” services such as security apparatuses and the presidency’s administration. The State Department should urge the Egyptian government to end this discrimination as even the lowest estimates place the Coptic population at 10% in Egypt.
- Urge an abolition (or at least end to the use and abuse) of “blasphemy laws” (coming under various forms such as “derision of religion”). While it is supposedly illegal to denigrate other faiths, a disproportionate number of cases have been brought against Christians, but this report did not include any statistics on the use of blasphemy laws as in previous reports.
- The Egyptian constitution claims religious freedom for all, yet immediately narrows down the right to practice and establish places of worship, to only revealed faiths, which are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Coptic Solidarity urges the State Department to place greater emphasis in their future reporting and interaction with the Egyptian government on this point to advocate that all religious minorities have the right to practice, or at least not be harassed.
Coptic Solidarity believes that the annual reporting by the State Department is valuable and provides important guideposts by which one can learn about religious freedom in Egypt. Yet, the focus has been often sidetracked to ancillary issues. Furthermore, CS notes with deep concern that the Egyptian government’s relentless PR efforts appear to have 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 and other religious minorities.
There are countless ways President el-Sisi could demonstrate a commitment to improving religious freedom such as removal of religion from ID cards, ending the use of blasphemy laws, ensuring all religious minorities can practice, build houses of worship, and import religious literature, include religious minorities in the cabinet, in appointments of deans of universities, governors, judges, national security positions, and insisting that minorities be allowed to compete in sports and represent Egypt internationally. For these annual reports and the policy recommendations to be effective, the State Department should place greater focus on the systemic forms of discrimination and obstacles to the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for all Egyptians.
Coptic Solidarity Analyses from Previous Years
- 2021 – Coptic Solidarity Analysis of State Department’s 2021 IRF Report: Hidden Realities of Religious Discrimination in Egypt
- 2020 – Annual State Department Report 2020: What Constitutes Improvement for Copts in Egypt?
- 2019 – Annual State Department Report 2019 Confirm Systematic Discrimination Against Religious Minorities in Egypt
- 2018 – An Assessment by Coptic Solidarity: State Department 2018 Annual International Religious Freedom Report on Egypt
- 2017 – Coptic Solidarity Analysis and Recommendations on 2017 Egypt Chapter of State Department Report
- 2016 – Coptic Solidarity Applauds 2016 Egypt Chapter of State Department International Religious Freedom Report and Provides Recommendations
- 2015 – State Department’s 2015 Annual IRF Report Claims Improved Status of Copts as Key Positive Development in State of Religious Freedom Worldwide
- 2014 – Analysis of Egypt Portion of the 2014 IRF Report