By Coptic Solidarity
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published its annual report on May 1, 2023. This valuable tool provides important guideposts to learn about the state of religious freedom as well as to track significant changes resulting in improving or worsening religious freedom. Each year, Coptic Solidarity publishes an analysis of the USCIRF report. Last year, the USCIRF published both a lengthier country update on Egypt, as well as the usual two-page Egypt chapter in their annual report. For that reason, Coptic Solidarity’s analysis was much more extensive in 2022.
The 2023 USCIRF report continued the recent trend of improvement in explaining the role of USCIRF and clarifying how it compares and contrasts to the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) and to their annual report and designations. Both text and design of the USCIRF 2023 report demystify what previously was a little understood field, making it more accessible to civil society, reporters and the general public. This is most pronounced in the explanation of the Country of Particular Concern (CPC) recommendations and the recommendations for the Special Watch List (SWL), to which USCIRF nominated Egypt be added to in 2020, 2021, and again in 2022.
The Egypt chapter is an improvement over 2022 as the language is simultaneously more direct when necessary, and more nuanced in other areas, overall presenting a more accurate picture of the situation in Egypt such as with the 2016 Church Law. Coptic Solidarity has noted in many of our annual analyses of both the USCIRF and State Department’s IRF Reports the mention of improvements in Egyptian curricula, despite the lack of real knowledge or evidence of these “reforms.”
USCIRF used additional funding during the past year to work with an NGO to conduct in-depth research on Egyptian curricula. They followed up by hosting an excellent virtual event with the researchers to discuss the project and their findings which were published in a report. As USCIRF published in this Egypt chapter, “a USCIRF assessment found that despite slight improvements, religionization of the curriculum remained endemic. Subjects such as Arabic Language and Social Studies advanced government-endorsed versions of Sunni Islam while underrepresenting, excluding or negatively characterizing…religious minorities such as non-Sunni Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
This additional research project and findings demonstrate the importance of verifying governmental claims of “improvement.” It also confirms USCIRF’s need to conduct this type of additional research on a variety of topics and countries which in turn better inform all interested parties and enable them to engage in more effective advocacy.
- Notes the use of travel bans enforced against individuals imprisoned, or awaiting trials, for their religious beliefs/writings/activities, such as Patrick Zaki and Abdel Rahman.
- Incudes the case of Hani Farouk Gibran, a Coptic attorney imprisoned for merely speaking against persecution of Copts on social media. It is critical to note the continuing harassment of attorneys by the Egyptian government
- Continued attention to existence and abuse of “Blasphemy” laws in Egypt
- Inclusion of the case of Anas Hassan, as atheists have been increasingly targeted for imprisonment by the Egyptian government
- Notes the increase in violent and deadly attacks against Coptic individuals throughout the year
- Continues to urge Egypt to end use of customary reconciliation sessions which disproportionately rob Copts of compensation or justice when they are victims of crimes
- Inclusion of the case of “Baby Shenouda” (not by name).
- More comprehensive and accurate explanation of the 2016 Law and recommendation to replace it:
- Notes that the law is considered inherently discriminatory, rather than praising its passage.
- Notes the ineffective and slow process of granting churches permits.
- Notes the refusal to allow reconstruction of a burned church.
- Notes that many churches are unsafe as a result of the lack of permits to repair and build churches, resulting in deaths.
- Explicitly calls for “proposing universal ‘houses of worship’ legislation that treats identically the construction, repair, and registration of houses of worship of all religions.”
- Added critical recommendation to the US government to encourage Egypt to “lift all travel bans and asset freezes on released religious prisoners of conscience and establish independent oversight and appeals mechanisms for travel bans.” Coptic Solidarity has long called for follow-through on the cases of prisoners of conscience because once released from prison, media and advocacy attention often fade. Meanwhile, those individuals are still prevented from living normally and often continue to suffer severe penalties by the Egyptian government. This recommendation rightly addresses the plight of individuals such as Ramy Kamel, Patrick Zaki, and others.
- Attention to the plight of Coptic women who suffer the double victimization of “both Anti-Christian and female-targeted” abuse such as “suspected kidnapping and potential forced conversion to Islam…and physical assault,” as well as the disproportionate impact of personal status laws on minority women.
- New heading, State Targeting of Religious Identity, Expression, and Activism which clearly identifies that the Egyptian government and officials are directly responsible for these violations of religious freedom, as opposed to the title in 2022, Legal and Judicial Challenges to Religious Freedom.
- First sentence of the above-mentioned section states that “The Egyptian criminal justice system remained the locus of systematic and ongoing religious freedom violations.” This is significant because “systematic and ongoing” is one of the three descriptions used to identify the worst violators of religious freedom. It also is a statement about the broad abuses within the full Egyptian judiciary against religious minorities, that cannot be misconstrued as the actions of a few bad actors.
Coptic Solidarity Recommendations
- Update size of the Coptic population in Egypt. After the publication of USCIRF’s report, HH Pope Tawadros provided new statistics on the Coptic population in Egypt demonstrating that they represent about 14% of the Egyptian population which is about 15 million people. Despite religion being required on all official documents, the Egyptian government has in the past claimed to not know the size of the Coptic minority, or to minimize their presence to an estimated 5 % of the Egyptian population.
- Return recommendation to remove religion as a required category from official identity documents.
- USCIRF correctly noted that “personal status laws regulating family matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance …disproportionately burden religious minorities, especially women.” Coptic Solidarity encourages the USCIRF to include a recommendation to the US. Government to urge Egypt to end the use and existence of personal status laws which translates to inequality under the law. Laws created, adjudicated, and enforced by religious leaders create a dangerous environment in which religious leaders have authority in civil space without proper accountability or recourse for those governed by their decision. The result is that women and children often suffer in circumstances of domestic violence, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, and have no legal option or support, should they try to escape. Enforcement of these laws continue to hinder women and children throughout life should they want to remarry, receive financial support to assist in caring for children, and much more. Lastly, the personal status laws that were in effect until 1952 have been over-ridden by Shari’a such as in the case of Baby Shenouda. Egypt ultimately needs a truly civic (ie non-religious) personal status governance that applies equally to all citizens. If difficult to envisage in the current social environment, it should at minimum be made available as an option for citizens who do not wish to abide by religion-based governance. In all cases, Shari’a-based laws (especially in matters related to adoption and inheritance) must not be imposed on non-Muslims , regardless the situation.
- Monitor the presence of Copts in public jobs where they currently face the 2% ceiling such as in education, administration, national security, and the judiciary.