Hearing on the Coptic Christian Community in Egypt

Statement to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, United States Congress

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing on the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, and for inviting me to testify. My statement will address the continued discrimination and threats to personal security faced by the Coptic community and outline U.S. government efforts to support religious freedom.

As you know, this hearing is taking place one week after Egypt held the first round of its elections for the People’s Assembly. Although some irregularities occurred, by all accounts the process has so far allowed the Egyptian people, who participated on an unprecedented scale, to make their voices heard at the ballot box for the first time in decades. I would like to reiterate Secretary Clinton’s congratulations to “the Egyptian people for a peaceful, successful start to their election process.” This process will eventually lead to the drafting of a new constitution and finally presidential elections.

Times of transition are full of unknowns, and this one is no exception. Egyptians – Muslims and Christians, educated and illiterate, rich and poor – are exercising new freedoms and opportunities to profoundly shape Egypt’s future, choosing their future leaders, government, and constitution. The Secretary called this period Egypt’s “historic transition to democracy” and stressed “the importance of the process continuing in a just, transparent, and inclusive manner.”

Transitions can be inherently threatening to minority communities and as such engender fears of negative consequences. Mr. Chairman, some Coptic Christian fears are well founded. Sustained failure to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian violence has nurtured a climate of impunity in Egypt over many years. Copts have borne the brunt of heightened sectarian violence and tensions. While I list in some detail below facts concerning recent major sectarian crimes, I would like to highlight two cases where authorities have yet to arrest a criminal suspect to face trial. A church in Alexandria suffered a bomb attack on January 1 of this year — killing 23 and injuring approximately 100. On October 9, at the television building in Cairo near Tahrir Square, violence captured in video recordings and reported by eye witnesses resulted in at least 25 deaths and more than 300 injuries, most of them Copts.

Egypt’s Copts continue to face discrimination, especially in government employment and the ability to build, renovate, and repair places of worship. A unified places of worship law has yet to be passed. Copts represent about 10% of the population and play an important role in Egypt’s economy, yet they remain underrepresented in prominent positions in Egyptian politics and society. These factors serve to sanction societal discrimination and engender negative attitudes against them.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made clear their deep concern about violence against Coptic Christians, most recently concerning the October 9 tragedy. We have urged the Egyptian government to investigate this violence, including allegations that the military and police used excessive force that was the cause of most of the demonstrator deaths. We also have urged that those responsible for these deaths and injuries be held accountable. Authorities must identify and arrest any suspects in connection with these horrific crimes as soon as possible.

As you know, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner provided testimony to the Helsinki Commission on November 15, highlighting discrimination Coptic Christians face and urging accountability for all who perpetrate sectarian crimes. We continue to call for an end to violence and discrimination based on religion or belief, as well as impunity for such crimes.

While the focus of my testimony is on the situation of the Copts, I would like to point out that other religious minorities also suffer official discrimination. While non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognized by the government – namely Christians and the tiny Jewish community – generally worship without harassment, members of the Bahai Faith, which the government does not recognize, face personal and collective discrimination. The government also sometimes arrests, detains, and harasses Muslims such as Shia, Ahmadiya, and Quranist, converts from Islam to Christianity, and members of other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The Government continues to refuse to recognize conversions of Muslims to Christianity or other religions, constituting a prohibition in practice. Anti-Semitism remains a problem and Egyptian media—both state-owned and private—continue to propagate stereotypes and intolerance toward Jews.

Mr. Chairman, it is also important to set this testimony on the Copts in a broader context. In early November, Secretary Clinton gave an important policy address that outlined our overall policy on democratization in the Middle East and beyond. She described the U.S. government’s principled engagement in the Middle East. We support the aspirations of citizens to live in societies that guarantee freedom, including freedom of expression, assembly and religion. We also believe strongly in systems that allow citizens a say in how they are governed and that provide economic opportunities for all. These are the demands that we heard in Tahrir Square, where Copts and Muslims joined hands to protest and to pray in the weeks leading up to the downfall of the Mubarak regime. We have heard similar demands echoing throughout the Middle East and even far beyond that region following Tahrir Square.

Secretary Clinton also has spoken out about the importance of religious freedom and religious tolerance, both fundamental to human dignity and peaceful transitions to democracy. Religious freedom is a human right, guaranteed by international human rights law. At the release of the State Department’s report on International Religious Freedom in September, Secretary Clinton emphasized the role that religious freedom and tolerance play in building stable and harmonious societies. She said:

“Hatred and intolerance are destabilizing. When governments crack down on religious expression, when politicians or public figures try to use religion as a wedge issue, or when societies fail to take steps to denounce religious bigotry and curb discrimination based on religious identity, they embolden extremists and fuel sectarian strife. And the reverse is also true: When governments respect religious freedom, when they work with civil society to promote mutual respect, or when they prosecute acts of violence against members of religious minorities, they can help turn down the temperature. They can foster a public aversion to hateful speech without compromising the right to free expression. And in doing so, they create a climate of tolerance that helps make a country more stable, more secure, and more prosperous.”

This is the basis for our belief that in order to succeed and prosper, Egypt, and its neighbors, must protect the rights of all citizens and all minorities, including its Coptic population. The corollary is also true: successful democratic transitions are the best way to safeguard those rights.

Meanwhile, the frequency and severity of sectarian incidents in Egypt are profoundly disturbing.

In January 2010 gunmen attacked the Nag Hammadi Church in Upper Egypt, shooting and killing seven people as worshippers were leaving a midnight Christmas mass. On a trip to Egypt shortly afterward, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner called for an end to impunity for such crimes and full accountability for those who attacked this holy place. One suspect, Hamam al-Kamouny was tried under the emergency law in a state security court, convicted on January 16 and executed on October 10. The other two defendants, Qoraishi Abul Haggag and Hendawi El-Sayyed, were acquitted by the court, angering many Coptic activists. On November 14, Egypt’s official news agency announced that Abol-Haggag and El-Sayyed are to be retried on December 19 under the Higher Emergency State Security Court, for crimes including premeditated murder and terrorism with the use of force and violence. We applaud the pursuit of accountability in this case, although we would prefer that these types of crimes be dealt with in civilian courts with full due process of law.

Almost exactly a year after the Nag Hammadi attack, a bomb exploded at the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, on January 1, 2011, killing 23 people and wounding around 100. There are no suspects in custody for that horrendous crime, although the Government of Egypt reports that its investigation is ongoing.

These two incidents, and others like them, took place before the fall of President Mubarak on February 11. We have since received reports of an increase in sectarian violence and tensions, including at least 70 people killed in religious clashes – most of them Coptic Christians. This brings the total number of reported deaths this year to approximately 95. There have been at least six recent major incidents of violence against Copts:

o On February 23, the Army used live ammunition, including rocket propelled grenades, against unarmed Copts during a land dispute at the Saint Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrun. A monk, one of the six shot, later died. To our knowledge, no one has been held accountable for these attacks.

o On March 4, in the village of Sol, a large group of Muslim villagers destroyed the Church of Saint Mina and St. George after the army failed to stop them. To our knowledge, there has been no investigation and no one has been charged despite videos of the perpetrators.

o On March 8, 13 people were killed when Muslims and Copts clashed in the Mukkatam area of Cairo. Some of the Copts had been protesting the slow government response to the destruction of the church in Sol. One Coptic bishop claimed that although news reports listed seven Christians and six Muslims, all 13 were Copts. To our knowledge, there has been no investigation and no one has been charged in the deaths.

o On May 8 in Imbaba, a poor neighborhood of Cairo, two churches were attacked and one burned during sectarian riots. The clashes resulted in 23 deaths and 232 injuries. That month, the official media reported that the government referred 48 suspects to trial. Approximately half of these suspects have been arrested, including a prominent Salafist leader, while half remain at large. The trial resumed on December 4, when the judge postponed proceedings to allow forensic doctors to prepare their testimony.

o On September 30, in Merinab village in Edfu, Aswan governorate, an estimated crowd of 3,000 Muslims looted and burned the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, in addition to some Copt-owned homes and businesses, following reported incitement by village imams. Local media reported that a Ministry of Justice fact-finding committee traveled to Aswan on October 12, in the aftermath of the October 9 violence, to investigate the church burning. The status of this investigation is unclear.

o And finally, on October 9 in Cairo, violence erupted in front of the Egyptian television building known as Maspiro, at a demonstration by Copts protesting the government’s failure to investigate the burning of the church in Merinab in Aswan governorate. At least 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured. Prosecutors are investigating about 30 demonstrators, including one prominent blogger, who were detained during the violence. They are accused of inciting violence, stealing firearms, and attacking security forces. They will be tried in state security courts. However, to our knowledge no arrests have been made of persons suspected of having perpetrated the lethal attacks on the demonstrators.

On October 11, Secretary Clinton raised the Maspiro incident with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and called for an immediate, credible, and transparent investigation and accountability for all who were responsible for the violence, with full due process of law. The White House issued a statement urging Egyptians to move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt and reaffirming our belief that the rights of minorities – including Copts – must be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom.

The Government of Egypt has stated publicly that they are conducting two investigations. The Egyptian Armed Forces is reviewing the conduct of Military Police, who eyewitnesses and video evidence suggest ran over and shot at demonstrators. The Ministry of Justice has been tasked by the Egyptian Cabinet with a full investigation of the incident.

On November 2, a fact-finding committee established by the National Council for Human Rights issued an initial report on the Maspiro violence. (NCHR is a quasi-governmental watchdog body, but the committee was led by respected human rights advocates). The report found that the march by Copts and their Muslim allies began peacefully at Shubra and moved toward Maspiro in downtown Cairo. According to the report and several corroborating accounts, as the marchers approached Maspiro, they were attacked by civilians throwing rocks and chanting Islamic extremist slogans. According to the same sources, military police then confronted the marchers and attempted to keep them from reaching the building. The MPs used shields and batons, and fired blanks. Marchers began fighting back against the violent civilians and military police. The NCHR report acknowledged that 12 or more civilians were killed and 15 injured when they were run over by armored military vehicles. The committee said it could not determine who fired the bullets that killed at least seven demonstrators, but asserted that the authorities possess bullets that can be used to assist an investigation to identify the source of gunfire that killed protestors. The report called the incident a turning point that threatens Egyptian society.

During the height of the clashes, state TV anchor Rasha Magdy called on “honorable Egyptians” to defend the Army against “attacks by violent demonstrators.” Twenty-one prominent Egyptian human right organizations criticized the “inflammatory role played by the official state media,” charging that a “direct link can be traced between the outright incitement against demonstrators by state media and the events at Maspiro.”

The Coptic community is concerned, as we are, about the severity and frequency of sectarian attacks against their community, and the need to hold perpetrators accountable. Muslims have also stood with members of the Coptic community to protest extremist violence carried out against them.

The United States Government condemns this sectarian violence and continues to urge the Government of Egypt to take all necessary and available measures to address the root causes of sectarian violence and tensions.

In raising our concerns about the Coptic community, we are also aware and very supportive of the positive steps the Egyptian government has taken on behalf of the Copts. On March 8, by order of the Prime Minister, Coptic priest Mitaus Wahba was released from prison where he was serving a five-year sentence for officiating at a wedding of a Christian convert from Islam. On April 14, the SCAF fulfilled its commitment to rebuild a church in Sol that had been destroyed on March 4 by mob violence. And as I noted earlier, the government also took steps in response to the May 8 Imbaba violence; in addition to re-opening dozens of churches, the government is prosecuting 48 individuals charged with murder, attempted murder, and a variety of other crimes.

The government of previous Prime Minister Sharaf pledged to adopt a Unified Places of Worship Law, which would eliminate discrimination from the process for constructing and renovating places of worship by placing equal requirements on all religious groups. Many cases of sectarian violence over the years have stemmed from disputes over church construction. Senior leadership of both Muslims and Copts recently indicated agreement on a Places of Worship Law for each community and the draft law pertaining to Copts is now in the hands of the government. We strongly urge the Government of Egypt to pass that legislation at the earliest possible opportunity. The prompt adoption of this provision now would send a very strong signal of the government’s commitment to protect religious freedom.

I would like to recognize the government’s addition of an anti-discrimination law to its penal code, fulfilling an order of former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. On October 15, in the aftermath of the Maspiro violence, the SCAF issued a decree amending Egypt’s penal code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, language, faith, or race. The decree also delineated prison sentences and specific fines for acts of discrimination and failure to prevent them. These included more severe penalties for government officials found to be complicit in discrimination. We look forward to its just and transparent implementation. This will provide accountability for those who commit such crimes and help put a stop to impunity, provide justice to victims, and contribute to a stronger democracy.

Beside urging legal and policy support for improved religious freedom and tolerance in Egypt, we are pressing the government to identify and redress other roots of sectarian violence and negative attitudes. While real change requires action that only the government of Egypt can take, we are seeking additional ways to foster progress. We support some existing programs that promote religious freedom and tolerance and we are seeking additional ways to do so.

The rights, well being, and participation in governance and society of Egypt’s estimated ten million Coptic Christian citizens are vital to the success of Egypt’s democracy. With this process of historic transition to democracy off to a good start, we urge the cabinet, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and Egypt’s future leadership, to safeguard the universal rights of all Egypt’s citizens.

Like Egyptian Muslims, Egyptian Copts are concerned about their country’s future and their own place in it. In addition to security from sectarian violence and equal treatment under the law, they seek equal representation in parliament and a proportional voice on the committee that will draft Egypt’s new constitution. Along with Egyptian Muslims, Egypt’s Copts and other religious minorities consider themselves full partners in the new Egypt that has entered a “historic transition to democracy.”

As Secretary Clinton said in her remarks following Egypt’s historic elections last week:

The American people will continue to stand by the people of Egypt as they move toward a democratically elected civilian government that respects universal human rights and will meet their aspirations for dignity, freedom, and a better life.

Thank you.

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