By Mina A. Botros – Coptic Solidarity –
THE COPTIC IDENTITY: RECOGNIZING THE COPTIC “INDIGENOUS PEOPLES” STATUS FOR PROTECTION FROM STATE-SPONSORED DISCRIMINATION (PART 3 OF 4)
III. CURRENT NATIONAL SITUATION
The Constitution of Egypt officiates the state’s name as the Arab Republic of Egypt, declaring in the Preamble and Article 1 that Egypt is a part of the Arab Nation and the Muslim World. Article 2 names Islam as the state religion and states that Shari’a is the primary source of legislation. Article 3 recognizes Christian and Jewish canonical laws as a source of legislation for the religions’ followers in personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Article 63 prohibits all forms of forced and arbitrary migration for all citizens as the act is considered a crime without a statute of limitations. Article 64 grants absolute freedom of belief but limits the practice of religious rituals and the building of places of worship to be organized by law. Article 65 grants freedom of thought and expression in all forms: speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication. Article 71 prohibits the censorship, confiscation, suspension, or shutting down of any Egyptian media outlet except for limited censorship in times of war or general mobilization. Article 72 ensures the independence of all media and publication institutions to prevent governmental influence and lack of neutrality. Article 74 prohibits establishing political parties based on religion or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location. The article prohibits parties that are anti-democratic, secretive, or ones with military or quasi-military nature. Article 102 grants the President 5%- about 23 seats- of total seats in the House of Representatives to be appointed at their discretion. Article 250 grants the President one-third- about 60 seats- of the total seats in the Senate to be appointed at their discretion. Article 180 requires that, in local council elections, one-quarter of the seats be allocated for those under 35 years old, one-quarter for women, half for farmers and workers, and “proper representation” for Christians and people with disability. Article 235 endows the House of Representatives the right to issue legislation on the process of building and renovating churches.
It is worth noting that regardless of the content of the articles, legal enforcement is a major factor that trumps the articles’ content itself as enforcement usually faces obstacles and ineffectiveness, clearly denoting a lack of political will to implement even the most basic measures that could reinforce the Copts’ citizenship rights.
According to Article 235, the House of Representatives passed law 80/2016, which legislates the building of churches. It specifies what components make up the building and prohibits the practice or use of any building to practice Christian rituals unless that building is licensed. Article 7 states that once a church building is licensed, it cannot be used for any other purposes even if there is no congregation for the building. Article 8 establishes a committee appointed by the Prime Minister to watch over the status of all churches and stop the licensing process as seen fit. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required time frame.
The judiciary branch is responsible for deciding on many sectarian cases through the shari’a law than the constitution and bylaws. On May 18, 1996, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled (SCC-18-Y17) on a case on the supremacy of the shari’a law over any legislation. The Court also ruled that shari’a shall “result in a restriction that the legislative and executive branches must enact and submit to in all their legislations issued after this amendment.” This provision constitutes the looseness of all provisions in the constitution as the only mandated laws will be the shari’a regulations and not the national constitution. For example, in 2008, the Constitution of 1971 (the active constitution at the time) included Article 46 which grants “freedom of belief and the freedom of practicing religious rights.” However, a court ruled in the year that Muhammad Hegazy, a Muslim convert who wanted to change his name and religion on his ID “can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper, he can’t convert.” The judge explained that he relied on the Second Article of the constitution that gives shari’a supremacy over any other civil laws, and the shari’a bans conversion from Islam to any other religion.
Article 98F of the Criminal Code of Egypt states that at least six months imprisonment or 500 pounds fine shall be imposed on anyone who “uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto or prejudicing national unity or social peace.” The “blasphemy law” leaves much room to justify the imprisonment of journalists, activists, and religious thinkers due to the vague language of the article. This article is often used to prohibit evangelical activity as well.
Adding religious affiliation to identification documentation has been a central symbol of discrimination in Egypt. The only three options for this section are Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. ID cards are required in nearly every aspect of life: healthcare, military service, university enrollment, and more everyday agencies. The other more recent option is to have (-) on IDs, which is usually granted to Baha’is who had no official classification or formal recognition. This limitation excludes minorities and makes it impossible for anyone to convert from Islam, especially with the 2008 Court ruling that banned legal conversion from Islam. The only justification for including religious affiliation on identification documents is for the government to censor and limit religious activity and differentiate the treatment of Christians and Muslims once the ID is presented.
The law to license church buildings violates the right to establish and maintain places of worship set by the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. According to published reports, by the end of 2022, six years after the promulgation of the law, the Church Regularization Committee granted preliminary approvals to 68% of the outstanding (3730) applications for Christian religious buildings. On the other hand, tens of churches are closed annually due to the bureaucratic, lengthy licensing process, and such difficulties often lead to sectarian attacks. Despite all this, Al-Nour Party, a political-religious party (which should have been considered illegal under Article 74 of the Constitution, but the courts ruled otherwise because the party’s principles are in line with Article 2), considers this law as an undeserved, un-Islamic privilege to Christians.
Although Article 63 prohibits the forced migration of all citizens, Soad Thabet, 74, and her husband were forced out of their village after she was assaulted and stripped naked by three men who believed that her son was in a relationship with a Muslim woman. Within six years of court proceedings, the three accused were acquitted multiple times, and Thabet now faces a civil compensation suit. The courts have proven to be ineffective to rule in sectarian incidents as, according to a study, 45% of these are decided by customary reconciliation sessions. These sessions are usually biased against the Christian participants, and a common result is the forced migration of the Christian family. Authorities have typically submitted to these sessions instead of prioritizing a legal proceeding. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, there are six common categories for the sessions:
- Conflicts over worship and the public exercise of religious rites;
- Conflicts over consensual romantic and sexual relationships;
- Disputes related to freedom of expression in religious matters;
- Conflicts related to local feuds;
- Conflicts related to political differences; and
- Disputes related to crimes attached to Copts’ generally weaker position, such as abduction or extortion.
The evolving problems with reconciliation sessions are: they are not consensual from both parties of the dispute; they are often used as a substitute to official judicial streams; their ruling is often against the law- which includes banishment, destruction of property, imposition of curfews, and even murder-; and their leadership is easily manipulated by powerful families, parliamentarians, or religious sects.
Per the international statutes that grant the right for minorities’ participation in national decisions, Coptic representation has been radically disproportionate if not absent. Of the 100 vice-presidents of the State Council that were appointed by Presidential Decree 12, only one of them was a Copt. Out of the 516 deputy persecutors that President El-Sisi appointed in September 2022, five of them were Copts. There are almost no Copts among all university administrators, and that applies to all 98 newly appointed female judges, national sports teams, government posts, or any other discipline. In fact, in almost all areas, Copts have an average representation of 0-2% in public posts.
Throughout the last decade, hundreds of Coptic minor females have been lured, kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted to Islam. Under only one priest’s jurisdiction, about 15 girls are kidnapped and coercively converted and married annually. Although the government takes an official stance against human trafficking, Article 2 of the Constitution conflicts with that position, so the government assumes an ineffective position or creates contradictory laws. These laws may include voiding a marriage should an adult married woman convert to Islam or the provision that a minor is allowed to formally convert to Islam after a Muslim custodian approves a marriage. The systematic and practical mental and physical harm as well as the forcible conversion of children comes in direct violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 200; Article 10 of The Arab Charter on Human Rights; Article 3 of Egyptian Law Number 64 of 2010 on Human Trafficking; and most dangerously Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The “blasphemy law” has long been a major human rights concern in Egypt as it severely limits freedom of thought and expression. A deeper, lesser- known concern is the disproportionality and execution of the law that authorities have been using to particularly target Copts and other religious minorities. In a study by Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy’s Eshhad, 41% of all recorded blasphemy cases are against Christians. Of the 36 blasphemy cases made between 2011 and 2012, 35 were made for blaspheming Islam and the only one against Christianity was dismissed. This law has been abused by authorities and religious officials to prohibit any evangelical activity and even comments on the Islamic State. Utilization of blasphemy charges have not decreased since the removal of former President Muhammad Morsi, but are used continuously against advocates, activists, and evangelists.
 Constitution of Egypt, Article 1, 2, 3, 63, 64, 65, 71, 72, 74, 102, 180, 235, and 250.
 Muhammad Kamel, ““الجريدة الرسمية تنشر القرار الجمهورى بإصدار “تنظيم بناء وترميم الكنائس”, Al-Youm Al-Sabe’, September 28, 2016, https://www.youm7.com/story/2016/9/28/الجريدة-الرسمية-تنشر-القرار-الجمهورى-بإصدار-تنظيم-بناء-وترميم-الكنائس/2900893.
 SCC-18-Y17, Supreme Constitutional Court, 1996, http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/arabic/Egypt-SCC-SC/Egypt-SCC-18-Y17.html.
 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 1971, Article 46, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/electronic/34111/67289/f.
 Cole, Ethan, “Egypt Rules Christian Convert Must Remain Legally Muslim,” CP World, February 3, 2008, https://archive.ph/20120728135657/http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080203/egypt-rules-christian-convert-must-remain-legally-muslim/index.html.
 Criminal Code of Egypt as of 1992 (English version), Article 98(f), https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/uploads/res/document/criminal_code_of_egypt_english_html/Egypt_Criminal_Code_English.pdf.
 Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Prohibited Identities: State interference with Religious Freedom, Human Rights Watch, November 1, 2007, Volume 19, No. 7(E), https://eipr.org/sites/default/files/reports/pdf/ProhibitedIdentitiesEN.pdf.
 The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Church Construction Law, Washington DC, July 29, 2019, https://timep.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ChurchConstructionLaw8-29-19.pdf.
 Al-Nour Party, About The Party, https://alnourpartyeg.com/ar/info/about.
 Masr, Mada, “Door of Justice Slammed Shut in High-Profile Sectarian Case, Thabet Now Faces Civil Suit from Men Who Assaulted Her,” Coptic Solidarity, January 17, 2023, https://www.copticsolidarity.org/2023/01/17/door-of-justice-slammed-shut-in-high-profile-sectarian-case-thabet-now-faces-civil-suit-from-men-who-assaulted-her/.
 ““Whose Customs? The Role of Customary Reconciliation in Sectarian Disputes and State Responsibility” Four years, four presidents, and 45 unjust customary reconciliations that violate the rights of Coptic citizens,”Egyptian initiative for Personal Rights, June 15, 2015, https://eipr.org/en/press/2015/06/“whose-customs-role-customary-reconciliation-sectarian-disputes-and-state.
 “Coptic Solidarity Urges Fifa to Investigate Discrimination Against Coptic Footballers in Egypt,” Coptic Solidarity, Washington DC, June 18, 2018, https://www.copticsolidarity.org/2018/06/18/coptic-solidarity-urges-fifa-to-investigate-discrimination-against-coptic-footballers-in-egypt/.
 Ibrahim, Raymond, “Systemic Discrimination: Comparing America’s Blacks to Egypt’s Copts,” Coptic Solidarity, January 26, 2023, https://www.copticsolidarity.org/2023/01/26/systemic-discrimination-comparing-americas-blacks-to-egypts-christians/.
 Ibrahim, Raymond, “Abduction, Rape, and Forced Conversion of Christian Girls in Egypt,” Middle East Forum, September 27, 2020, https://www.meforum.org/61600/abduction-rape-and-forced-conversion-egypt.
 Coptic Solidarity, ‘Jihad of the Womb’: Trafficking of Coptic Women & Girls in Egypt, Washington DC, September 10, 2020, https://www.copticsolidarity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/jihad-of-the-womb-report-fa.pdf.
 Eshhad, Issue Brief: Egypt’s Blasphemy Laws, Washington DC, Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy, March 2016, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5947e4266a49635915ac0a31/t/59ee823bf43b55e080277fa5/1508803132566/IB_Egypt+Blasphemy.pdf.