FCO Human Rights Report 2019
There were some positive developments on FoRB, starting in January with President Sisi opening the largest cathedral in the Middle East, and ending with preparations to reopen a newly restored synagogue in Alexandria.
The number of licences issued under the 2016 Church Building Law continued to increase, with over 1,222 church buildings receiving licences since the middle of 2018. Dr Murrison visited Cairo in September, meeting the Coptic Pope and reaffirming our mutual commitment to FoRB. However, the arrest of Coptic activist Ramy Kamel for alleged terrorism offences on 23 November gave cause for concern.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
Approximately 90% of the Egyptian population is Sunni, with a large proportion of these following Sufism. Salafi Muslims number approximately 6 million, with Ahmadis, Shi’ites and Mu’tazilis making up the remaining number of the Muslim population. Coptic Christians (c.8-9%) are the bulk of the non-Muslim population, along with other Christian denominations (1%), Baha’is (0.003%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.002%) and Jews and other groups.
There remains a high level of societal hostility towards different religious groups. Mobs regularly attack churches; Shia Muslims experience active discrimination and Copts have been harassed for drinking water during Ramadan fasting hours. Egypt has long been divided along sectarian lines, with short-lived Muslim Brotherhood rule and the influence of Daesh exacerbating tensions.
President Sisi has spoken about the need for greater tolerance and has taken some symbolic action, including becoming the first Egyptian leader to attend a Christmas Eve Mass. However, the government is largely unable to protect Christian places of worship from bomb attacks or Christians themselves from kidnap and extortion.
In 2018, Coptic Christians were attacked multiple times and in several places during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha. A week earlier, a suicide attack on a Coptic church in north Cairo was thwarted. In November 2018, three buses carrying Christian pilgrims on their way to a remote desert monastery south of Cairo were ambushed, killing seven people and wounding 19 with the local Daesh affiliate claiming responsibility. While in this case police killed 19 terrorist suspects, in general the authorities have failed to prosecute those who attack Christians and have instead enforced state-sponsored reconciliation agreements which provide impunity for the perpetrators and leave Christians vulnerable to future attacks.
It remains difficult to open places of worship for recognised faiths, though the Egyptian government has prioritised the reconstruction of several significant non-Muslim places of worship. In October 2018, it was reported that only 340 out of 3,730 applications for legal status and building permits for unlicensed churches had been granted under the 2016 Church Construction Law, which was meant to provide an avenue for Christians to legally build and renovate churches. Many unregistered churches have waited around 15-20 years to be registered by the state. In the meantime, they remain vulnerable to being shut down or attacked. For instance, the church in Ezbet Sultan Pasha village, Minya, faced mob attacks with police complicity when seeking legalisation in July 2018.
In January 2018, the Head of the Egyptian Parliament’s Committee on Religion put forward legislation to outlaw atheism. This was debated in Parliament and considered by the President. This highlights the environment that those with no religious beliefs experience in Egypt. It is illegal to register as humanist, atheist or as a secularist and those who have attempt to do so have faced harassment from the authorities.
Blasphemy cases are increasing in Egypt. Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal code criminalises contempt of religion, thereby acting as a blasphemy law. In December 2017 a 29 year-old man was accused of ‘contempt of religion’ for running a Facebook page called ‘Atheism’. In July 2018, a mob attacked several Coptic Christian homes in Minbal village, Minya, following the publication of a Facebook post deemed offensive to Islam. Atheists and adherents of non-recognised religions are barred from registering their chosen belief on ID cards. Thanks to a 2008 court ruling, official recognition of conversion from Islam is impossible, and those who do so in practice face significant social and governmental hostilities.
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