By Coptic Solidarity

(Washington, DC) March 9, 2018

Editors Note: Coptic Solidarity addresses the specific comments reportedly made by Egyptian Parliamentarians. No reporting on USCIRF policy or statements is addressed in this response. 

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is currently in Egypt meeting with representative of the Parliament regarding the state of religious freedom there. Coptic Solidarity submits the following response to Youm7’s reporting on the meeting.

Each year the USCIRF publishes an annual report describing the state of religious freedom on select countries and making recommendations. As part of their investigation, USCIRF Commissioners and staff have traveled to Egypt on multiple occasions to discuss their findings and developments in the country.

MP Tariq Radwan, head of the Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, stated, “We do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.” This statement is blatantly false, runs contrary to the reality of the discrimination and persecution Copts face on daily basis in the many forms delineated in Coptic Solidarity’s ‘44 questions for the Egyptian Parliament, published on January 23, and for which we still anxiously await a response from the Egyptian authorities.

Mr. Radwan also noted his marriage to an Orthodox Christian as proof that Christians do not suffer discrimination in Egypt. This is merely an anecdotal case and sentimental statement that does not prove anything. Mr. Radwan knows full well that a Christian man would never be permitted to marry a Muslim woman in Egypt, and children born into mixed faith families are always registered and raised as Muslim by the government, and have no freedom to pursue the faith of their choice and are unable to change the religion listed on their ID cards to reflect their faith if it is not Islam.

MP Alaa Abed, head of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, referred to President el-Sisi’s call to renew the religious discourse, which he made at al-Azhar University. While calling for a renewal of religious discourse certainly sounds positive, the fact remains that fundamentalist Islamists under al-Azhar’s leadership have refused to acknowledge such a need or make changes. Over three years later, there is no change in educational curricula which instill hate of people of other faiths in children from an early age. Changes to the Egyptian school curricula would be certainly welcome if they truly teach students to respect others’ faith and stopped denigrating Jews, Christians, and other minority faiths groups and acknowledge Copts’ contributions to Egypt’s history. We eagerly await these promised changes in educational curricula referred to by MP Abed to find out how substantial or cosmetic they are and if they are actually implemented.

MP Abed pointed our the recent building of the largest Coptic Orthodox cathedral in the Middle East in the new administrative capital but coyly attempted to make it seem to be natural thing in a tolerant environment. Constructing one large church in a metropolitan area is touted as proof of religious freedom in Egypt. This case, while certainly welcome, ignores the continued closure of more then 250 churches, not to mention that the new church construction law which promised to officially recognize some 3,700 de facto churches in Egypt has failed to do so 18 months later. Plans to normalize or acknowledge the status of 53 already existing churches were announced recently by the Prime Minister’s office. At this rate, it will take a quarter of a century to authorize all 3,700 churches. The highly touted 2016 church construction law has failed to remove the old hurdles as it promised. Furthermore, “…it was under President Sisi’s tenure that the Copts (..) 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,” as stated by Mr. Behey el-Din Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

MP Sharif al-Wardani, Secretary of the Human Rights Committee of Egypt’s Parliament, criticized Coptic Solidarity saying the organization used the pretext of [“Copts Rights”] in criticism of the government. Ironically, his use of quotes further demonstrates the complete denial by Egyptian legislators of Coptic issues making it sound as if they shouldn’t exist or be acknowledged.

Mr. al-Wardani laments the spread of atheism and blames it on the current religious discourse. His comment again reveals that Egyptian legislators and the government do not believe in or promote true religious freedom. Only the three “Heavenly Religions”, Sunni Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, are acknowledged as religions in Egypt, with followers of the latter two religions acknowledged only as de facto Dhimmis, i.e., as second class citizens. This also means that Baha’i, Shi’a, any other faiths, or no faith, are not recognized.

MP Manal Maher was clearly disingenuous to point out that there have been no new cases prosecuted under the “derision of religion” articles of the penal law, that have been applied almost exclusively against non-Muslims. Instead, MPs should be supporting the repeal of this law. Also, it is not clear what to expect of the new human rights law referred to by MP Abed and whether his comments are mere rhetoric to placate the feelings of the visiting USCIRF delegation.

Finally, the Egyptian government has decimated civil society, press freedom, religious freedom, and applied rampant tactics of targeting writers, thinkers and political opponents. How far will it go?

As the US State Department, USCIRF and other entities seek to engage the Egyptian authorities on issues of religious freedom and human rights, any legislative changes should be scrutinized and the subjection of all civil rights to Shari’a percepts within Egypt must always be attentively considered.

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Photo Credits: Youm7 – http://www.youm7.com/story/2018/3/7/%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%86%D8%A9-%D8%AD%D9%82%D9%88%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AA%D9%81%D9%86%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%BA%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B2%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%86/3683599