August 20, 2017

On August 15, 2017, the State Department issued its annual report on International Religious Freedom, which documents the state of religious freedom in nearly every country worldwide except for the United States.

The 2016 Egypt country report followed the traditional reporting format with an executive summary, religious demography, status of government respect for religious freedom, status of societal respect for religious freedom, and concluding with U.S. government policy. Much of the content of 2015 and 2016 reports remained the same demonstrating that most of the legal framework and governmental and societal factors continued to oppose religious freedom of minorities in the same ways.

Of note, the reporting language was less explicit in drawing conclusions. For example, the word “sometimes” was used heavily to describe the Egyptian government’s slow or lack of response to assist Copts or protect their property from being attacked in several of the reported scenarios. While the report covered many incidents and examples of the violations of religious freedom, there appears to be a real timidity in drawing any conclusions or making any definitive statements regarding the year’s developments aside from the standard descriptive language regarding Egypt’s laws and demography.

The vague and inconclusive language may possibly be the result of the numerous vacancies in the State Department. Although Governor Sam Brownback was recently nominated to fill the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, he has yet to be confirmed. There also appears to be a lack of a cohesive and clear foreign policy within the Trump administration regarding Egypt. While the administration has thus far focused on joint US-Egypt efforts to combat terrorism, there seems to be little pressure exerted on Egypt to improve its religious freedom and human rights record. Recently, a bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators has taken the lead exposing Egypt’s shuttering of civil society and repression of minority faith groups. The lack of a cohesive strategy within the current U.S. administration may be the impetus behind this year’s report that cites various incidents, but fails to draw many definitive conclusions.

Coptic Solidarity made recommendations in response to the publication of the 2015 report and applauds the inclusion of several of these recommendations in the 2016 report including:

  • An update was included on the progress made in repairing burned, damaged, or otherwise destroyed Christian religious property during the sectarian violence in August 2013. Seventy-eight of the 78 buildings have now been repaired compared to only 26 in 2015. The source of funding for these repairs was not indicated in the 2016 report.
  • The report noted the continued exclusion of Copts from all ‘prominent’ posts in government and academia.
    • The inclusion of a report of the kidnapping of a Coptic girl is a positive improvement and admission that kidnappers disproportionately target Christians.
  • An update was included on the case of Mohammed Hegazi (Bishoy Boulos) including the unjust imprisonment he suffered and pressure to reconvert back to Islam. (Even though Hegazi “converted back” to Islam in a bizarre episode, after months of detention by the State Security).
  • Another excellent addition was made on the discrimination against Coptic athletes, and on Coptic Solidarity’s filing of complaints with the IOC and FIFA regarding religious discrimination against Copts in Egypt.

The primary purpose of the IRF report is to cover any improvements or worsening of religious freedom in each country. However, Coptic Solidarity has noted the absence of many important incidents of religious freedom violations in Egypt since they did not occur during the reporting year. Coptic Solidarity fears that these serious incidents that occurred outside the reporting period will be relegated to the distant past by the time next year’s report is published.

The report praises president Sisi’s calls for reforming “religious discourse” and notes that such calls have “sometimes” not been heeded by the state. This is a serious understatement which fails to mention that the spread of hate culture by Wahabi Salafis, de facto allies of Mr. Sisi, goes unabated and with the implicit support of the government. Absent from the report is any reference to the fact that, apart from rhetoric, Mr. Sisi has done little to implement a policy to confront extremist ideologies. The result is a lack of clarity or focus in the understanding of what is happening to religious minorities in Egypt.
Coptic Solidarity recommends the addition of a “follow up” section to the country reports, which would serve as a reference to determine if any justice or significant action was made to address past atrocities. Unless the reader is intimately acquainted with a particular country and cases, it is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the state of religious freedom without having more context. This again highlights the importance of not just citing incidents, but of following up on them, thus connecting the dots between incidents, their outcome and their significance.

Reading between the lines of the 2016 report one can ascertain that in many instances, both Christians and Muslims were arrested after Christians were attacked, and then often Muslim perpetrators were released on bail or were not charged for their crimes. This annual report could bring greater accountability to the issue of impunity in Egypt by adding a “follow up” on incidents such as the Maspero Massacre, the multiple large-scale church bombings, and the individual acts of violence against Copts and their property.

Coptic Solidarity additionally recommends the following topics to be included in the 2017 report:

  • Report on the implementation of the new church construction law passed by the Egyptian Parliament on August 30, 2016, including the number of applications submitted, number of permits issued, the duration it took to respond to permit applications, and impact the new legislation has had on the church building/repair crisis. Since the law went into effect for less than six months of the reporting period, there was not enough data to include this year. There is excellent analysis on the many loopholes and problems with the current law. The most notable assessment was made by Mr. Bahey eldin Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies at Coptic Solidarity’s recent conference when he stated: “it was under President Sisi’s tenure that the Copts, for the first time in Egypt’s modern history, became officially and legally recognized as a ‘sect’ and not equal citizens; through the passing of the Church Building Law and the dropping of Egyptians’ long standing collective demand for ‘A Unified Law for Houses of Worship’.” Coptic Solidarity highly recommends detailed reporting on implementation of the church law in the 2017 report.
  • Report on the continued exclusion, which has deteriorated under Mr. al-Sisi, of Copts from all ‘prominent’ posts not just in government institutions and academia, but in other key sectors such as the military, judiciary, and state-owned media.
  • The quota of 24 Christian parliamentarians is only a one-time provision of the 2014 constitution. It is quite striking that virtually all of those elected were carefully selected by the Security apparatus, with the result that they seldom expose the real situation of the Copts, and are often used as emissaries to foreign countries (especially the US) parroting the government’s misinformation campaign that all is fine with the Copts. It would be important to compare the number of minority parliamentarians in future elections, which are supposed to be held every five years.
  • Expand reporting on the kidnapping and forced conversion of Coptic women and girls, particularly of underaged girls, as more verifiable reports are accessible.

Finally, Coptic Solidarity applauds the U.S. government for its promotion of and continued commitment to international religious freedom through monitoring and publishing this annual report. Special thanks are due to those dedicated civil servants who compile and write this report each year, and who consistently strive to improve its content. While Coptic Solidarity has made recommendations for improvement, the report continues to be one of the best available tools for those advocating religious freedom worldwide.

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