Religious freedom in Egypt: ‘one step forward, two steps back’

As hundreds gathered outside Downing Street in London on Wednesday (4 November) to protest against the visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, The Cairo Post reported that U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chairman Robert P. George said that the religious situation in Egypt has been “complicated” over the past year, although President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi made ‘noteworthy’ statements to urge religious reform.

“The religious freedom landscape in Egypt…can be summed up as follows: one step forward, two steps back,” George said in his testimony before the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights in a session titled Human Rights in Egypt.

He said over the past year, the Egyptian government’s crackdown on terrorism and extremism negatively impacted and resulted in a “poor” human right situation.

“Despite some political and other dissidents being released from prison this year, sympathizers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists, and opposition figures have been harassed, jailed, and given harsh prison terms, including death sentences for Brotherhood members and other Islamists, sometimes on legitimate, but also on unfounded, security charges,” he said.

George described the situation of the Coptic Christian orthodox as “precarious”, however, he said the number of the attacks against Copts was notably decreased over the past two years.

He added that President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi made “noteworthy” statements on religious tolerance and moderation, beside encouraging reformation of the religious discourse.

Despite the decreased number of the attacks against the Copts, the perpetrators have not been brought before justice, George added, saying “the inability to protect Copts and other religious minorities, and successfully prosecute those responsible for violence, has continued to foster an atmosphere of impunity.”

“Small communities of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses remain banned and anti-Semitism persists in state-controlled and semiofficial media,” continuing “despite these positive developments, most of the discriminatory and repressive laws and policies that restrict freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief remain in place.”

The committee said that during Sisi’ tenure the government’s Ministry of Endowment controlled over all the state’s institutions and mosques as a “necessary” way to fight the religious extremism.

The committee has urged the U.S. administration to ensure that U.S. security assistance to help the Egyptian police to protect the religious minority communities and human rights and civil society and belief for all Egyptians.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has written to Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to raise human rights concerns, including long-term issues regarding freedom of religion or belief, with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during his official visit to the UK this week.

President Sisi’s visit comes at a time when terrorism has been on the increase across Egypt. While most acts of terror are concentrated on the Sinai region where the jihadi group and Daesh (Islamic State) affiliate Anṣār Bayt al-Maqdis is based, regular bomb explosions targeting government, judicial and security buildings, as well as high profile assassinations, have also occurred in Cairo. While there is a general public acceptance that the battle against terrorism requires special measures, concerns are increasingly voiced regarding the rapidly shrinking space for civil society as fundamental rights and freedoms, including of expression and association, are increasingly curtailed.

There are also persistent concerns regarding full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief. In August 2013, allegations that the Christian community was behind the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi triggered a wave of sectarian violence targeting Christians and churches. Although the frequency of such attacks has decreased significantly since that time, and while there have been encouraging moves towards ensuring greater equality for all religions, problems persist.

In Upper Egypt in particular, members of Egypt’s Coptic community, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, experience difficulties largely at the hands of non-State actors. Coptic individuals or communities in this area can face harassment, verbal and physical abuse, kidnapping for ransom, destruction or illegal seizure of property, destruction of churches and the threat of murder, with security services often failing to provide adequate protection. CSW has also received reports indicating that in some instances police and other state actors perpetrate discrimination and persecution.

In addition, charges of “insulting religion” or blasphemy are increasingly being levelled against members of non-majority faiths. Although these charges tend to be issued by courts outside of Cairo, there is a worrying trend of fines and prison sentences being handed to those found guilty of religious defamation. “Contempt of religion” laws are used to detain, prosecute and imprison those whose practices and proclamations are alleged to jeopardise “communal harmony.” While the majority of people found guilty of blasphemy have come from the Christian community, Shi’a Muslims, atheists, and individuals from the Sunni Muslim majority have also received similar charges.

President Sisi has made several speeches and statements encouraging religious tolerance and is the first Egyptian President to attend a Coptic Christmas mass, where he advocated equal citizenship. In widely hailed remarks at Al-Azhar University, the foremost seat of religious matters, jurisprudence and learning in Sunni Islam, he outlined the need for a “religious revolution”, saying that the “corpus of [Islamic] texts and ideas that we have sacralized [sic] over the years” are “antagonizing the entire world”.

CSW’s Chief Operating Officer Andy Dipper said, “The alarming increase in terrorism understandably necessitates extraordinary measures; however, we urge the Prime Minister to use the opportunity of President Sisi’s first visit to the UK to encourage the formulation of a counter-insurgency policy that is tolerant of civil society and of the peaceful expressions of dissent that are vital for the emergence of a healthy pluralistic society. While we applaud the president’s commitment to equal citizenship for all Egyptians, it is important that the continuing difficulties experienced by non-majority religious communities, including the harassment of Coptic communities in Upper Egypt and the proliferation of religious defamation charges, are also addressed during these discussions. The Egyptian constitution proclaims that ‘Freedom of Belief is absolute’; however, religion-related violations and discrimination prevent the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by every faith community, which in turn mitigates against the emergence of a just and prosperous society.”