The USCIRF report on the state of religious freedom in Egypt provides a good overview of the situation for Copts and other religious minorities. Coptic Solidarity (CS) commends the USCIRF Commissioners and staff for their rigorous research and in-country visits, enabling them to publish this valuable resource. The annual publication of this report creates awareness, holds the Egyptian government accountable, and gives hope to religious minorities that individuals, organizations, and other governments continue to advocate for their equality.
USCIRF for the second year placed Egypt on their Tier 2 list of countries as opposed to those named ‘Countries of Particularly Concern (CPC). The Tier 2 designation is a step below CPC meaning that the country engages in at least one of three elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard required for CPC designation.
There are a few areas in which USCIRF’s assessment were more optimistic than that of Coptic Solidarity. Below we outline positives of the report, areas of disagreement, and recommendations for improvement.
– Overall, the USCIRF Egypt chapter presents a good overview of the situation of Copts and the societal and legal challenges they face. The section of recommendations to the U.S. Government includes many excellent points, which Coptic Solidarity supports and certainly hopes would be implemented by the State Department.
– USCIRF urges the Egyptian government to accelerate approval of existing churches to be officially registered and repaired, as the 2016 Church Law claimed would happen. Despite promises to review and approve all existing churches in Egypt that were never given permits, the Egyptian government has failed to take action. Of the 5,540 churches (a figure reportedly provided by the Egyptian government ) that applied for licenses, renovation, or construction, the Egyptian government has approved only 53 in early 2018, just before USCIRF’s visit to Egypt, and promises to approve another 200.” As CS has noted, it would take, at this rate, a quarter of century to for the rest of the churches in Egypt to gain permits, and it does not include issuing permits for the construction of new churches which are desperately needed. Unlicensed churches remain a flash point for violence against Christians worshipers who are subject to intimidation and closure of their churches at the whim of Central Security Forces.
– One of the recommendations includes repealing or revising the Contempt of Religion law (referred to as “blasphemy law”), which results in discriminatory targeting of Copts and other religious minorities, resulting in fines and often imprisonment. CS’s opinion is that Article 98 (f) of the Egyptian penal code should be repealed altogether and replaced by an anti-hate speech law.
– Another good recommendation includes supporting the human rights and NGO community who have come under increasing pressure by the Egyptian government, and revision of text books and curricula that promote hatred or violence towards religious minorities.
– An important improvement in this report was the focus on impunity for those who attack Copts. USCIRF noted the very few cases that have progressed to a trial, including the absurd case in Atfih village in which Muslim attackers were fined $28 USD and one-year suspended sentences compared to the $20,500 fine given to a Christian for using his home as a place of worship without a license, pointing out that the church has been waiting 15 years for a license.
-Another update is regarding the once vibrant Jewish community in Egypt. USCIRF reported that the Ministry of Antiquities’ Project Sector is contributing $2.2 million towards renovating the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria while simultaneously noting that only 8 Jewish people remain in the entire country. The Jewish community has been decimated as a result of the Egyptian government’s policies and religious discrimination since 1952.
– Lastly, in this 2017 report is an explanation of US foreign aid to Egypt, the hold placed on a portion of the aid, and the current financial situation.
There are several areas of the report on which Coptic Solidarity has different views.
– USCIRF recommended that Egypt be designated a CPC for six years in a row, with the last being in 2016. Coptic Solidarity applauded those recommendations to the State Department which makes the official designations, although State never made the CPC designation for Egypt. Coptic Solidarity believes the situation for religious minorities in Egypt apart from a few cosmetic steps by President Sisi continues to deteriorate.
When USCIRF first dropped Egypt to a Tier 2 recommendation, the stated reasons included that the reporting period did not cover several large -scale bombing of Coptic churches. There also had not been sufficient time to see how the 2016 Church Law would be implemented and USCIRF retained hope that it would make an improvement for Copts in Egypt. A full year has now passed, and USCIRF reported on how the Egyptian government has barely made steps to implement the 2016 Church Law. This reporting period includes not only the major church bombings, but many other individual incidents including the attack on the St. Samuel monastery pilgrims.
Reports have documented an increase in the attacks on Copts and other minorities in recent years. CS believes Egypt meets the CPC criteria of “systematic, ongoing, egregious” and should be recommend as a CPC, not a Tier 2 country.
Over 100 Copts were killed in 2017 alone. According to Mr. Behey eldin Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Copts have been subjected to more attacks during el-Sisi’s rule than before (with the exception of the August 14, 2013 wave of attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood on churches).
– USCIRF accepted the Egyptian government and Egyptian media’s explanation that the twin church bombings on Palm Sunday 2017, and the attack against pilgrims journeying to St. Samuel’s monastery were committed by ISIS. Yet, on closer inspection, these attacks and the rise in persecution of Copts is perpetrated by homegrown Islamists and the hate culture in Egypt, not by foreign groups. Only the attacks in northern Sinai are likely to have been executed by ISIS affiliates. View CS’s publication on this topic.
As CS president, Dr. George Gurguis stated in his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on December 6, 2017, “we fully support Egypt’s efforts to combat Islamic terrorism, but equally warn that most of the violence against Copts is home-grown and a direct result of bankrupt policies that have effectively helped to produce the very kind of Islamic extremism that Mr. el-Sisi says he is fighting. In fact, as eloquently put by Dr. Fouad Abdel Moneim Riad, member of Egypt’s National Human Rights Council and a former judge at the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, “The real danger to Egypt’s very existence is not terrorism, but criminal fanaticism against an authentic part of the Egyptian nation, and the state’s lack of seriousness to prevent it.”
In the attack against Pilgrims traveling to St. Samuel’s Monastery, twenty-nine individuals, including ten children were murdered. President el-Sisi quickly held “external terrorists” responsible for the attack and conducted airstrikes on camps inside Libya, despite lack of any evidence that these groups or targets were the actual culprits. The perpetrators—who spoke a local Egyptian dialect and were familiar with a relatively unknown desert route to the monastery—were clearly native Egyptians. Yet, this incident is included in the USICRF report under the section titled Attacks by ISIS Affiliates.
– By not discussing the all-pervasive culture of hatred toward all non-Sunni Muslims by the Egyptian government and society, the USCIRF report inadvertently accepts the Egyptian government story line. While el Sisi condemns the Muslim Brotherhood, he simultaneously gives the more radical Salafis free reign in Egypt. Their partnership is such that, the visibly pious Salafists confer Islamic legitimacy on him, and in exchange he allows their Islamist ideology, which ais more hateful and intolerant towards Christians than the Brotherhood’s, to infiltrate every level of society including media, public schools and, of course, mosques.
– USCIRF reported that during their March 2018 visit to Egypt, “The Minister of Education outlined plans to roll out over a period of several years a new education system and curriculum for primary and secondary schools starting in the fall of 2018. CS remains skeptical of actual improvement, if any, and implementation in what concerns the issues of education of civility and cleansing the various curricula (especially the Arabic language and history courses) of Islamic religious references which have no place in public education.
– Based on previous experience, CS defers judgement on this as an improvement until action has transpired. Also, the USCIRF report fails to mention the duality of education systems whereby Al-Azhar provides a parallel system, from Kindergarten to Ph.D., for over two million pupils and students who are by definition Muslims only. This divisive system (financed by all taxpayers including non-Muslims) offers hate-filled curricula that can only breed extremism, foster societal divisiveness and violence, and produce future terrorists.
– The 2016 Church law was lauded in the US by many as a sign of improvement in Egypt. Yet almost a year and half passed since it was issued, and its implementation has been virtually non-existent. It perpetuates the same old obstacles and loopholes that that make obtaining a permit a virtual impossibility. Churches continue to be seen by the government as a threat to national security. Only 53 out of 3,800 already existing unlicensed churches obtained a permit contrary to earlier promises by the government, when the law was passed.
– The USCIRF report mentions work with the Egyptian Family House. In fact, this ‘Family House’, which is under the auspices of Al-Azhar (the Church is a nominal partner), and under its purview arbitrary “reconciliation meetings” are held denying Christian victims of violence their right to pursue their attackers in court. The Egyptian family House should be terminated as it demonstrates how the Egyptian state abdicates its responsibility to protect its minority citizens and delegates it to such an organism which acts, or reacts, after sectarian attacks with one objective in mind, namely to exonerate Muslim attackers and to force the innocent Coptic victims to forfeit their legal rights.
– The USCIRF report did not address other aspects of religious persecution specifically the kidnapping, rape and forced conversions of Coptic women a good number of them are underage girls. Neither did it address the rising number of Coptic soldiers serving in Egypt’s Armed Forces who have been killed in their units under suspicious circumstances with their killings attributed to suicide, a rare occurrence among Christians, or to sudden medical conditions.
Recommendations for Future Reports
Coptic Solidarity has recommended to both the State Department and USCIRF
- CS recommends adding a follow-up section to the report that would delineate more clearly major incidents and track what actions have been taken to prosecute perpetrators, and if any reparations have been made to the victims. The USCIRF report this year mentioned a few of these incidents which is helpful. CS recommends expanding this to include incidents such as the Maspero Massacre, the multiple church bombings, and the individual acts of violence against Copts and their property to bring greater continuity to the report and increase accountability to the culture of impunity in Egypt.
- CS recommends including a section on the culture of hate and lack of respect for the “other” within Egypt. This culture plays a substantial role in the continuation of systematic and systemic discrimination against religious minorities. It must be addressed and transformed if Copts and other minorities are to achieve true equality in Egypt.
- CS additionally recommends including a section to the report on the role of the judiciary, government officials, police, and internal security that contributes to the discrimination and persecution religious minorities suffer in Egypt. USCIRF recommended allocating a portion of U.S. military assistance “to help police implement and effective plan for dedicated protection for religious minority communities and their places of worship. Often, police are complicit in attacks and refuse to file first information reports against Muslim perpetrators. Expanding their budget would only be wise if there was accountability for police to stop discrimination against Copts and religious minorities. As has been reported, police are often complicit in the kidnapping of Coptic women and girls, do not arrive on crime scenes in timely fashion, do not secure or properly investigate crimes scenes involving Christians, and often coerce Copts to pass on their rights to press charges against perpetrators.
- – CS recommends including a more nuanced explanation of those prosecuted and sentenced for blasphemy. USCIRF noted that there was an increase in blasphemy cases in 2017 saying that while most cases are filed against Sunni Muslims, “most of those sentenced by courts to prison terms for Blasphemy have been Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists.” Talking about “Sunni Muslims” could imply that they have been prosecuted for attacking other religions. In fact, many of these cases involve enlightened or moderate Muslims critiquing some aspects of Islamic schools of thought, such as the excellent example given by USCIRF of Sunni cleric Mohamed Abdullah al-Nasr who was sentenced to five years in prison for publicly questioning certain interpretations of Qur’anic texts. While CS condemns the current blasphemy law, we notice that USCIRF did not highlight the fact that scores of Muslims (especially clerics) routinely attack and denigrate Christianity and Judaism viciously without ever being prosecuted. Lodged complaints are neglected by the public prosecutor, implying that attacking any religion other than Islam is OK with the Egyptian State.
While Coptic Solidarity makes recommendations for improvement, the report continues to be one of the best available tools for those advocating religious freedom worldwide.