Religious freedom in Egypt ’declining’, says report

Religious freedom in Egypt ’declining’, says report

 Freedom of religious belief in Egypt “declined” between July 2007 and June 2008, according to the US State Department’s annual assessment of religious freedom throughout the world, the International Religious Freedom Report.


The report is compiled on the basis of information obtained “from a variety of sources, including government and religious officials, NGOs, journalists, human  rights monitors, religious groups and academics” according to its preface.


The report describes legislation and governmental practices which discriminate against Egypt’s religious minorities and adherents of Islamic teachings viewed as heretical by the state.


Acts of discrimination against Egypt’s largest religious minority, Christian Copts, take up the bulk of the report.


“The government again failed to redress laws and governmental practices discriminative against Christians, effectively allowing their discriminatory effects and their modelling effect on society to become further entrenched,” the report states.


Despite making up between 8–12 percent of the population, Christians continue to be underrepresented in public office the report says, in violation of the Egyptian Constitution’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion.


“There are no Christians serving as presidents or deans of public universities, and they are rarely nominated by the Government to run in elections as National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates. Christians, who represent between 8 and 12 percent of the population, hold less than 2 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and Shoura Council,” the report says.


Christians continued to experience problems in obtaining the official permission necessary to construct and repair churches, with security forces blocking the use of permits that had already been issued or denying permits altogether. These delays can last for years.


The report makes clear that “such incidents often depended on the attitude of local security officials and the governorate leadership toward the church and on their personal relationship with representatives of the churches.”


The report’s third section describes numerous incidents of violent sectarian attacks on Copts, including clashes between monks and Muslim Bedouins caused by a land dispute involving the Abo Fana Monastery in Minya.


One Muslim man was killed during the incident, and three monks were kidnapped, physically assaulted and forced to denigrate Christian religious symbols.


The report says that “according to some observers, police responses to some incidents of sectarian violence were slow.”


Coptic leaders have, according to the report, refused to participate in the reconciliation sessions introduced by the government to address grievances between Muslims and Christians following sectarian attacks. It quotes an anonymous source as saying, “Human rights leaders criticized the sessions as “cosmetic” and a “humiliation since it holds the victim and the attacker to be equal, and bypasses justice by allowing the culprits to escape scot-free, secure in the knowledge that attacking Copts and destroying their churches or property warrants no penalty whatsoever.”


The refusal of officials to legally recognize religious conversions constitutes a prohibition to the exercise of freedom of belief, the report says.


It refers to a January 2008 Administrative Court ruling which stated that freedom to convert does not extend to Muslims.


In addition it says, a separate January 2008 Administrative Court ruling which ordered that the Minister of Interior issue identity documents to Christians who had converted to Islam and then converted back to Christianity contained “potentially restrictive elements in that the court ruled that the new identity cards and birth certificates must also indicate that the holder ‘previously embraced Islam’.”


The report points out that NGOs have warned that such a reference could subject converts to social stigma and discriminations.


It also notes that the law prescribes administrative steps pursuant to the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, and that the children of converts may automatically become classified as Muslim, even when they are adults.


In a section listing improvements and positive developments in respect for religious freedom the report lists an Administrative Court ruling which in January 2008 provided that the government must issue Bahais with official identification documents containing a dash in the religion field.


Bahais had until this ruling been forced to falsely list themselves as either Muslim, Christian or Jew or be denied ID cards and consequently access to state services.


“Despite the positive aspects of the ruling, there were also restrictive aspects. The court noted that a purpose of filling the religion field with a dash or other distinctive mark was to protect members of the ‘revealed religions’ — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — from Bahai infiltration and avoid potential dangers from such persons’ conduct and relations with them.


“The ruling stated that anyone who adopts the Bahai faith is an apostate and that the religion cannot be recorded in any civil status or other document, because this would conflict with public order.”


The report lists instances of state harassment of “religious groups whose practices are deemed to deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs and whose activities are alleged to jeopardize communal harmony,” such as the 2007 arrest of five followers of the Quranic movement who were released in October.


According to the report, one of the detainees reported to a lawyer that he had been beaten and threatened with rape by a State Security investigator.


The report also mentions the arrest of hundreds of members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization during the period covered by the report, as well as the April 2008 conviction of 25 Muslim Brotherhood members by a military court and their sentencing to terms between 7 and 10 years in prison.


A February 2008 law which bans political protest “inside or around” places of worship is, the report says, regarded by commentators as intended to prevent political gatherings in mosques.