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Egypt: Freedom of religion and belief – Christian Solid¬arity Worldwide (CSW)

March 5, 2017

cswCHRISTIANS in Egypt are still vul­nerable to terrorist attacks, and suf­fer from the effects of imprecise legislation and a crackdown on the-activities of NGOs, despite expres­sions of solidarity from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Christian Solid­arity Worldwide (CSW) has said.

The report says that, since the 2011 revolution which toppled President Hosni Mubarak, “the human-rights situation in Egypt has worsened progressively” against a background of “rising terror attacks throughout the country, and eco­nomic deterioration”.

In December last year, a terrorist attack close to St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo killed 28 people and wounded around 35 others (News, 16 December). Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.

A Coptic teacher in northern Sinai was shot dead on his way to school. That killing, at the hands of two suspected Islamists on a motorbike, followed the murder of a murder of a Christian vet and a shopkeeper, both in el-Arish, the main town in Sinai.

The CSW report says that under President Sisi “there have been some advances in freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief [FoRB]” — for Christians in par­ticular. In 2015, President Sisi be­came the first serving Egyptian head of state to attend Christmas mass, and he did the same last year. On both occasions, he delivered “a uni­fying message of national solidarity and equality of citizenship”.

Besides these “these symbolic overtures towards the Coptic com­munity”, the report says, “President Sisi has urged moderation and toler­ance with regards to religious dis­course”.

Nevertheless, CSW says, “there remain significant challenges across the country to the full enjoyment of FoRB.” The report cites a rise in the number of blasphemy cases being brought to court, and the failure of the state security services “to pro­vide basic protection or to under­take investigations” into attacks on Christians and their property.

Legislation passed in August 2016 concerning church construction and renovation, “though welcome, en­ables the rejection of building ap­plications on the grounds of numer­ous ambiguous prerequisites”. Then, the Civic.Association Law, passed by parliament last November, “places excessive restrictions and demands on civil society, including on NGOs promoting human rights, and has been described as ‘effectively eradic­ating civil society'”.

Some of these reservations are echoed in the latest Foreign Office human-rights report on Egypt, which says that, although police frequently arrest alleged perpet­rators after attacks on Christians, “NGOs say [that] sectarian incidents are often addressed with customary reconciliation sessions rather than through the formal justice system.”

NGOs have also been critical of the law setting out regulations for building and repairing churches, on the grounds that it treats churches differently from mosques. Civil-society groups have called for “a unified law on all places of worship”.

The dangers that Egyptian Chris­tians face from IS do not seem likely to go away. On Sunday, the group published a video specifically threat­ening them. The recording included the last words of the man whom IS said had carried out the suicide at­tack close to St Mark’s Cathedral.

There is mention of al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo – I visited it before it was fenced off.

csw-2Quotations:

Perpetrators of sectarian attacks generally enjoy impunity, with historical impunity for earlier religiously motivated attacks, including the wave of violence that followed the overthrow of former president Mohammed Morsi in June 2013, as well as incidents preceding that uprising

State-sponsored customary reconciliation meetings, which apportion blame and enforce unconstitutional judgements on parties from the minority faith in sectarian disputes, regardless of responsibility, continue to be problematic

While Christianity is protected in the constitution, other faiths are not, and there is fierce hostility towards atheism. State-sponsored religious initiatives depicting minority faiths and atheism as threats, and legislation banning certain minority faith groups, are particularly concerning

Mr Sisi gave a unifying message, which was filmed and broadcast, saying, “Let no one say ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’ It is not right to call each other anything but ‘the Egyptians’. We must only be Egyptians.”

The Education Ministry subsequently conducted a review of religious texts used in the national curriculum, which led to the removal of selected texts and passages that had been criticised as inciting violence. These included references to Saladin, a 12th century Kurdish military and political leader who led Islamic forces during the Crusades, and Uqba ibn Nafi, a seventh century Arab general who began the expansion of Islam into the Maghreb.

Blasphemy laws have a disproportionate impact on the country’s Christian minority. This is particularly the case in the more rural communities of Upper Egypt where sectarian tensions are ever present. Charges of blasphemy or blasphemous behaviour are widespread, and often become the subject of local speculation. Rumour and hyperbole then embellish any accusation, sometimes intensifying the situation to the point of violence.

Those found guilty of blasphemy, especially Christians and other religious minorities, flee the country or go into hiding in preference to serving a jail term where they would be discriminated against and suffer ill-treatment.

Dr Amna Naseer, the oldest MP and a teacher of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, was among the supporters of the bill repealing Article 98(f).  She stated: “Islam urges people to believe and does not call for imprisonment as punishment for anyone’s thoughts. For the sake of protecting my religion and the freedom of the Shari’a, I agree that the defamation of religion law should be repealed. This bill would also ensure that three of the freedoms enumerated in the constitution – thought, speech, and artistic expression – are protected.”36

Ehab Ramzy, a lawyer and former MP, has argued that Article 98(f) gives judges and police too much discretion in deciding what can be prosecuted. Many cases that should never come to court are aggressively pursued:

“When you have a [well-crafted] law, the law will have definitions and boundaries of each article. But in this article there is no such thing, so the definitions and the boundaries are left to the judge and the police to identify.”

While it is easy for a Christian to convert to Islam, if a Muslim wishes to convert to Christianity they have no right to have their conversion recognised on official documentation, and face charges of apostasy. In 2007 Mohamed Hegazy, also known by his Christian name of Bishoy Boulous, became the first Egyptian to request official recognition of his conversion from Islam to Christianity by changing the religious affiliation on his national identity card. In December 2013 Mr Hegazy was arrested in Minya on charges of inciting ‘sectarian strife’. After being held for six months, in June 2014 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for ‘disturbing the peace by broadcasting false information’. At an appeal hearing on 28 December 2014 he was found not guilty of this charge. While in prison he suffered maltreatment, including:

Being held in solitary confinement with those awaiting capital punishment

Physical abuse

Being denied access to a lawyer.

The reconciliation meetings themselves are not the problem. Rather, it is the manner in which the law is applied during these meetings and the final outcomes that are meted out to participating parties. The resolutions frequently impose ad hoc, unjust and often unconstitutional conditions on victims of violence, who subsequently have no recourse to judicial remedies. By blocking victims’ access to justice, this mechanism has contributed substantially to the repetition of sectarian violence, as well as to the growth of impunity for perpetrators.

Those in favour of such reconciliation sessions claim they stop the escalation of conflict and put an end to sectarian tension, given the heavy influence of religion in the original disputes. However, minority parties report that the sectarian aspect is at best ignored or at worst inflamed by these meetings. This can occur when the minority party is ordered to drop their complaint, is expelled from their home with their family, and is told to issue an apology, regardless of where blame lay. Further penalties may be meted out by the police to placate a complainant

Often the meetings are attended by representatives from religious establishments, including from the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar, at the invitation of those who convened the original reconciliation session.

Atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baha’i have been effectively banned since 1960, when the passage of Law No. 263,53 issued under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, granted official recognition only to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses also lack legal status in many areas, including family and inheritance law – aspects governed by the religious law.

In June 2014 writer Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in prison for ‘contempt of religion’ after his book entitled Where Is God? was judged to promote atheism.

In January 2015 Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, a student from Cairo, was sentenced to three years in prison for ‘insulting Islam’ after announcing on Facebook that he was an atheist.

“Society pays to train, educate and cultivate a group [of graduates] that hates society and is hostile to it and attacks it as it pleases.

The report is online here

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