CAIRO: A newly released report by a United States government panel says Egypt continues to be a country whose actions reflect a troubling lack of religious freedom.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its “Annual Report 2010” continued to place Egypt on its religious freedom watch list. Egypt has been on the USCIRF’s watch list since 2002.
USCIRF said Egypt remains on the watch list primarily due to discrimination towards Egyptian Christians and a continuing lack of recognition of Egyptian Bahais.
However, the USCIRF chose not to change Egypt’s status to “Country of Particular Concern” – designated for countries engaged in “ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.” The watch list, however, is reserved for “countries where religious freedom conditions do not rise to the statutory level requiring CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] designation but which require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments,” according to the USCIRF.
The US Congress created the USCIRF in 1998 to “monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad.” The USCIRF exists as an office within the US State Department, and issues an annual report on the state of worldwide religious freedom.
The USCIRF report singled out Egypt for, amongst other things, its treatment of Coptic Christians.
“Christians face official and societal discrimination,” the report said. “Although Egyptian government officials claim that there is no law or policy that prevents Christians from holding senior positions, the Coptic Orthodox Christian community faces de facto discrimination in appointments to high-level government and military posts.”
Out of Egypt’s 28 regional governors, only one is a Christian.
In addition, the USCIRF criticized Egyptian government policy regarding church construction projects.
“For all Christian groups, government permission is required to build a new church or repair an existing one, and the approval process for church construction is time-consuming and inflexible,” the commission said. “Although most of these applications were submitted more than five years ago, the majority have not received a response.”
“Even some permits that have been approved cannot, in fact, be acted upon, because of interference by the state security forces,” the commission added.
The USCIRF also criticized a lack of support for Egyptian Muslims wishing to convert to Christianity.
“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report said. ”Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards... a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law.”
The commission said the increased reports of violence against Christians, especially the Coptic Orthodox, have been especially troubling. The report specifically noted the March 12 attack in Marsa Matrouh, the February murder of a Copt by four Muslims in Dairout, and the January 6 shooting of Coptic worshippers celebrating Christmas Mass in Nagaa Hammadi all as cause for heightened concern.
“In most cases, perpetrators have not been convicted,” the report said. “In other cases, the alleged perpetrators have been briefly detained but eventually released without charge.”
“This increase in violence, and the failure to prosecute those responsible, fosters a growing climate of impunity, especially in Upper Egypt,” the commission concluded.
The Egyptian government’s relationship with Bahais was also a cause for placement on the watch list.
The Bahai faith’s adherents, who revere 19th Century Persian nobleman Mirza Husssein Ali Nuri as the Baha’u’llah and the final prophet of God, are not recognized as an official religious group under Egyptian law. A 1960 presidential decree, still in force, banned all Bahai institutions and community activities.
There are approximately 2,000 Bahais in Egypt today. “Almost all Bahai community members are known to the state security services, and many are regularly subject to surveillance and other forms of harassment,” the USCIRF said.
Bahais are not permitted to list their faith on national ID cards. While previously Bahais were required to list their religion as one of Egypt’s three recognized faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – Egyptians may now list a dash in place of religious affiliation.
However, Bahai marriage is still not recognized, and Bahais continue to be dismissed from jobs and universities.
The USCIRF called for US President Obama to do more to support Egyptian religious freedom movements — actions the commission believes Obama is not pursuing.
“For three consecutive years, the State Department has concluded that religious freedom conditions in Egypt have declined,” the commission said. “This assertion has not resulted in any significant change in US policy towards Egypt other than a few public comments and statements.”
The USCIRF recommended US aid should go directly to civil society groups and NGOs dedicated to religious equality, and that religious regulation should be taken away from the Egyptian government, which has become increasingly restrictive of which NGOs receive official support.
However, some feel that President Obama is not likely to follow the commission’s advice.
The Obama Administration’s proposed 2011 budget requires most US aid to go to NGOs officially recognized by the Egyptian government, and sets aside a $50 million “endowment” to be distributed out by the Egyptian president’s office.
“These two particular developments — requiring US to support only groups registered with the Egyptian government and establishing an ‘endowment’ — are unmistakable signs that the Obama administration does not consider political reform in Egypt a priority,” said Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center.
“The Egyptian government is doing everything it can to erase independent NGOs from the political map and the US seems to be legitimizing this move, sending the message that no matter how far you go in attacking civil society, we're not going to step up and do anything about it.”
“The quid pro quo continues — the US feels that it needs Egypt's help on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, so it doesn't want to irritate or provoke tensions with the Egyptian government,” Hamid said.