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Commission Issues Reports on Egypt and Saudi Arabia

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom today issued an Addendum to its May 1, 2001 Annual Report containing chapters on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The reports on the Middle Eastern countries were compiled following a Commission trip to the region in late March, too late for inclusion in the Annual Report itself.

On Egypt, the Commission found that despite some positive developments, serious problems of discrimination against a number of religious groups – particularly Christians and Baha’is – remain widespread. In addition, the government maintains tight control over all Muslim religious institutions. The Commission recommended that the U.S. government (1) monitor closely the conditions of religious freedom in Egypt; (2) raise these issues prominently in bilateral relations with the Egyptian government, including at the highest levels; and (3) urge the Egyptian government to accelerate progress on addressing these issues and promoting the religious freedom of all Egyptians. Commissioner Nina Shea issued a concurring opinion with reservations.

On Saudi Arabia, the Commission remains concerned over the extremely poor conditions of religious freedom there. As the State Department has bluntly summarized the situation in Saudi Arabia in its annual reports on international religious freedom: “Freedom of religion does not exist.” The Commission recommended that the U.S. government:

designate Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act;

consistently press the Saudi government to expand and safeguard the freedom to worship privately of non-Muslims and of those Muslims who do not follow the government’s interpretation and presentation of Islam; including permission for clergy to enter the country and perform private religious services for Saudi residents;

urge the Saudi government to engage in dialogue with the international leaders of those religious communities represented in Saudi Arabia;

encourage the Saudi government to promote religious tolerance and respect toward all religions in their education system;

urge the Saudi government to grant access to human rights reporters from international and non-governmental organizations and to journalists.

The Commission also recommended that reports by the State Department on religious liberty in Saudi Arabia should reflect more accurately the extreme difficulties for religious believers there. Commissioners Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and David Saperstein issued concurring views.

The Commission sees its study of the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories as a complex matter requiring additional work. Commissioners did not feel they were ready to make formal recommendations. Commissioner Laila Al-Marayati issued a dissenting view

 
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UNESCO Member States Share USCIRF Concerns Regarding Egyptian Candidate

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) welcomed the news that the UNESCO executive board has rejected the candidacy of Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni to be the organization’s director general.

“The outcome today clearly demonstrates that USCIRF’s concerns about the Egyptian Cultural Minister’s suitability for the top job at UNESCO were shared by UNESCO member states,” said USCIRF chair Leonard Leo. “It is important to have a Director General who supports the values of UNESCO.”

As USCIRF pointed out in a September 11, 2009 letter to Secretary of State Clinton, Mr. Hosni has made public remarks and advocated and carried out policies that are inconsistent with the leadership of an organization dedicated to promoting international educational, scientific and cultural collaboration. He also has served for 22 years as a Minister in a government that perpetrates and tolerates serious human rights violations against its own citizens, including widespread abuses of the religious freedom of both members of religious minorities and non-conforming Muslims.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF’s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

 


Violence Against Copts Goes Unprosecuted

Washington D.C.-The acquittal of four Muslim men for the murder of a Coptic Christian man in the Upper Egypt town of Dairout is the latest example in a growing pattern of instances where individuals have not been brought to justice after committing violent acts against Christians and their property, said the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The February 22 acquittal dealt with the October 19, 2009 murder of Farouk Attallah, which reportedly was witnessed by a number of individuals. Four Muslim men were arrested by Egyptian authorities.

According to reports, Mr. Attallah’s Christian son was involved in a romantic relationship with a Muslim girl. The Muslim men allegedly had planned to attack the young man, but when the attackers could not find him, they killed his father. The court stated the reason for the acquittal was insufficient evidence.

“This is one of more than a dozen incidents USCIRF has followed in the last year or so in which Coptic Christians have been the targets of violence,” said USCIRF chair Leonard Leo, who led a USCIRF fact-finding delegation to Egypt in January. “This upsurge in violence and the failure to prosecute those responsible fosters a growing climate of impunity. We call on the government to appeal the verdict in the Attallah murder and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

In Egypt, the government has 60 days to appeal a verdict.

In recent years, in response to sectarian violence, local Egyptian authorities have conducted “reconciliation” sessions between Muslims and Christians as a way of easing tensions and resolving disputes. “To be sure, we welcome reconciliation efforts, but they are in no way a substitute for enforcing the law and punishing people for wrongdoing,” said Mr. Leo.

In another high-profile trial which resumes on March 20 in the Qena governorate, three Muslim men are charged with the January 6 killing on Coptic Christmas eve of six Christians and one Muslim in the small town of Naga Hammadi. The case is being heard by a state security court. “In accordance with international human rights standards, we urge the Egyptian government to prosecute the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law through a fair and transparent trial,” said Mr. Leo. “We believe Egypt’s decision to bring this case quickly was important. At the same time, however, bringing one high-profile criminal case should not be mistaken for undertaking a comprehensive approach to investigating and prosecuting sectarian violence. Every case warrants attention.”

Since 2002, Egypt has been on the USCIRF “Watch List” as a country with serious religious freedom violations, including widespread problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF’s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

 


Remarks by Commissioner Elizabeth Prodromou Briefing on “Religious Freedom in Egypt”

Before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Of the United States House of Representatives
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Caucus:

On behalf of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I wish to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the Caucus for inviting me to brief you on behalf of the Commission on the situation of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in Egypt and our recommendations for U.S. policy. I respectfully request that my written comments be submitted into the congressional record.

Since its inception, the Commission, which is an independent federal agency, has paid serious attention to Egypt, not only because of its importance in the region, but because Egypt is an important ally of the U.S. and the second largest recipient of U.S. aid. Our two governments also work together on key foreign policy issues such as the war on terror and Middle East peace.

Current domestic and international pressure for democratic reform in Egypt has set the stage for the U.S. government to seek an agreement with Egypt on a timetable for implementation of specific political and legal reforms to protect the human rights of all Egyptians. In order to create that foundation on which democracy can be built in Egypt, efforts at political reform must include steps to address serious violations of freedom of religion or belief and other related human rights. I will address what those specific steps should be in a moment.

If benchmarks for political reform are met, then the U.S. government should, within the boundaries of its overall aid to Egypt, provide economic assistance to areas where significant progress has been made. If benchmarks are not met, the U.S. government should reconsider the dimensions and direction of its economic assistance. The U.S. government also should do more to support those indigenous civil society groups in Egypt who are pressing for these or similar objectives.

Current State of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion or Belief

Mr. Chairman, the Commission traveled to Egypt last year and met with senior Egyptian government officials, as well as prominent religious leaders, human rights activists, women’s rights groups, and other civil society leaders. The Commission continues to receive information from a variety of sources and monitors closely the situation on the ground. After a careful review of the current situation, the Commission placed Egypt on its Watch List again this year.

The Commission found that discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations affect a broad spectrum of Egyptian society, including: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’is and members of other religious communities. The Egyptian government has adopted measures in recent years to acknowledge certain aspects of the religious pluralism in Egyptian society. Yet more can and should be done by the government to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, to punish those responsible for religiously-motivated violence, and to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism and other intolerance in the media and in the education system. If these steps are taken, they would demonstrate President Mubarak’s commitment to fostering a democratic society that respects human rights.

I would like to highlight three of the most serious issues that the Commission feels deserve immediate attention:

Societal violence against and lack of protection for Coptic Christians
Persistent anti-Semitism in the media and education system
Requirements on national ID cards that discriminate against Baha’is and others
Violent attacks on religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians, by militant groups are an ongoing concern, especially in rural Upper Egypt. Unfortunately the violence last month in the normally peaceful coastal town of Alexandria resulted in the deaths of three Copts and injuries to dozens of others. According to numerous reports, Islamic extremists were responsible for instigating the violence. Egyptian authorities have said that a full-scale investigation is underway and should be made public after the final round of parliamentary elections concludes on December 1st.

Moreover, the Egyptian government does not provide adequate protection for Christians. For example, last year the Egyptian court system upheld the acquittal of 94 of 96 suspects who were charged in connection with the killing of 21 Christians and one Muslim in the Upper Egypt village of Al-Kosheh in early 2000. This effectively ended efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes despite widely reported police negligence during the investigation of the case. Impunity signals that perpetrators can get away with such violent acts. The government has a responsibility to do better – from investigations to judicial proceedings.

Material vilifying Jews and Baha’is appears regularly in the state-controlled and semi-official media. Human rights groups continue to report virulent anti-Semitism in the education system, which is increasingly under the influence of extremists. Such material has included Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic cartoons and television programming such as the 24-part series based on the notorious forgery, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Although Egyptian government officials have said that there is no official policy condoning anti-Semitism or other forms of intolerance, acts of anti-Semitism are virtually unopposed by government leaders.

All Baha’i institutions and community activities are banned, and Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Center has issued fatwas condemning Baha’is as apostates. Baha’is cannot even obtain mandatory identity cards – which are required by law – because religious affiliation is required on the cards and the only choices are Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The Egyptian government’s computerization of the national ID card system reportedly goes into full effect by the end of this year. If Baha’is cannot obtain ID cards, they would be subject to arrest at anytime while in public and essentially be denied all rights of citizenship. From a recently dated official document obtained by the Commission, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior makes it clear that it not only does not allow the Baha’i faith to be accorded recognition on identity cards, but it also does not allow individual Baha’is to identify their religion as “other.”

In addition, individuals who change their religion from Islam to Christianity fear government harassment if the conversion is registered. Reportedly, converts have altered their own identification cards and other official documents to reflect their new religious affiliation. However, if the altered ID cards are discovered by authorities, criminal charges can result.

In addition to these immediate concerns of the Commission, there are several other issues worth raising today.

Other Concerns

Role of the State Security Services

The Egyptian State Security Services oversee religious affairs in Egypt and restrict the religious activities of Muslims, Coptic Christians, and others. Interference, harassment, and surveillance by the State Security Services are significant problems for members of all religious groups. While the potential for violence is a valid matter of state security, removing the religion “portfolio” from the State Security Services and placing responsibility for religious affairs in a more transparent and politically accountable section of the government could result in a situation that establishes both effective preventative security measures and appropriate protection of human rights, in accordance with international standards. This would allow members of all religious groups in Egypt to conduct their day-to-day affairs without undue interference by the security services.

The role of the State Security Services in religious affairs predates the 1981 Emergency Law. Nevertheless, the implementation of that law – which was renewed for another three years in February 2003 – has further undermined the protection of human rights in Egypt. The security forces continue to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold detainees in prolonged pretrial detention. The National Council for Human Rights, formed by the Egyptian government last year, recently called for an end to the State of Emergency. The Commission encourages President Mubarak to make good on his Presidential campaign promise to reconsider and lift the State of Emergency.

Islam

In Egypt, religious practices that conflict with the state-favored interpretation of Sunni Islamic law are prohibited. The Egyptian government regulates and exerts some control over Islamic religious institutions and activities, control that, according to the government, is necessary to combat religious extremism and terrorism. The state appoints and pays the salaries of all Sunni Muslim imams, and all mosques must be licensed by the government. Sermons are monitored by the State Security Services.

Non-Conforming Muslims and Other Non-Muslim Religious Minorities

Discrimination against members of religious minorities in law, in practice, and in society needs to be addressed immediately. Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code prohibits citizens from ridiculing or insulting the three so-called “heavenly” religions – Judaism, Christianity, or Islam – or inciting sectarian strife among them. While this law has not been used to prosecute acts of anti-Semitism or acts against Christianity, it has been used to punish those who openly disagree with the kind of Islam promoted by the state. Persons accused of practicing “unorthodox” Islamic religious beliefs that, in the state’s view, conflict with Islamic law continue to be prosecuted in the state security courts. These include non-conforming Muslims who are charged with practicing beliefs deemed to deviate from Islamic law. Other minority Muslims such as the tiny Shi’a community also have faced increasing abuse and imprisonment in recent years.

Permits to build or repair churches languish under restrictive rules which apply only to non-Muslims. There are approximately just over 100 applications to build new churches that have been submitted for approval by President Mubarak without response. Most of those applications have not been responded to for at least 5 years or more. Although provincial governors now have the authority to approve applications for church repair, hundreds of such applications are languishing in the system. Even some permits that have been approved cannot be acted upon because of interference by the state security services, at both the local and national levels.

After several years of close surveillance, authorities reportedly have increased repressive measures in the last year against the small community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are not recognized by the Egyptian government. Jehovah’s Witnesses also have reported harassment and abuse by government authorities.

There also is a growing sense among human rights groups that Islamic extremism is advancing in Egypt, particularly with detrimental effects on the human rights of women and girls and influencing the public school curriculum.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

The Egyptian government has recently taken some steps that its leaders assert will establish a more open political process, although the results of those efforts remain to be seen. Some experts considered the September Presidential elections a step forward while others felt that the political space for opposition was severely limited. The degree to which the Egyptian government is serious about opening the political process can, in part, be judged on what happens between now and the conclusion of the parliamentary elections in early December.

At present, the Egyptian government has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to democratic reform by ensuring and protecting the human rights of everyone, as affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It could do so by taking action immediately in several areas related to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

The Commission has made several specific recommendations for U.S. policy. I would like to highlight just a few that could be acted on by the Egyptian government without further delay:

shift de facto responsibility for religious affairs from the State Security Services with the exception of cases involving or advocating violence;
repeal state of emergency laws;
more actively investigate religious based violence against Egyptian citizens, particularly Coptic Christians, and prosecute perpetrators responsible for the violence;
implement procedures which would ensure that all places of worship are subject to the same transparent, non-discriminatory, and efficient regulations regarding construction and maintenance;
cease messages of hate and intolerance toward religious minorities in the media and education system;
review textbooks and remove inflammatory or intolerant materials;
take all appropriate steps to prevent and punish acts of anti-Semitism;
ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination on the national identity card by removing religious affiliation; and
repeal a 1960 Presidential decree banning the Baha’i community from practicing their faith.
Furthermore, the U.S government should have the ability to directly fund civil society and human rights groups without vetting by the Egyptian government, including programs that extend beyond democracy and governance, such as educational programs.

Conclusion

Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is a universal human right and its vigorous protection for all Egyptians will be not only a yardstick of political reform, but an essential component for any lasting democracy in Egypt.

I thank you for your attention.

 


House Resolution 200 — Calling on the Egyptian Government to respect human rights and freedoms of religion and expression in Egypt.

111th CONGRESS

1st Session

H. RES. 200
Calling on the Egyptian Government to respect human rights and freedoms of religion and expression in Egypt.

IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

February 26, 2009
Mr. WOLF (for himself, Mr. MANZULLO, Mr. FRANKS of Arizona, Mr. MCGOVERN, Mr. SMITH of New Jersey, Mr. PITTS, Mr. KIRK, Mrs. MYRICK, Mr. DOGGETT, Ms. BORDALLO, Ms. ZOE LOFGREN of California, Mr. MCCOTTER, Mr. SOUDER, and Ms. ESHOO) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs

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RESOLUTION
Calling on the Egyptian Government to respect human rights and freedoms of religion and expression in Egypt.

Whereas the promotion of respect for democracy, human rights, and civil liberties are fundamental principles and aims of the United States;

Whereas the United States attaches great importance to relations with Egypt and considers fair and transparent elections as the only way to make progress towards a more democratic society;

Whereas Egypt plays a significant role in the Middle East peace process and in the fight against international terrorism and fundamentalism;

Whereas the Egyptian authorities have promised to put an end to the imprisonment of journalists and bloggers, but this promise has so far gone unfulfilled;

Whereas in its 2008 annual international religious freedom report, the United States Department of State concluded that religious freedom conditions declined in Egypt and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom continues to place Egypt on its watch list due to serious problems of discrimination and intolerance;

Whereas the independence of the judiciary continues to be undermined through exceptional parallel court systems, executive administrative orders overriding judicial decisions, and politically motivated lawsuits;

Whereas Shiites, Koranists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious minorities are harassed, arrested, and imprisoned by security services;

Whereas all Baha’i institutions and community activities have been banned in Egypt since 1960, and members of the Baha’i faith continue to face discrimination when applying for government issued documents;

Whereas material vilifying Jews appears regularly in the state controlled and semi official media;

Whereas the Copts, Egypt’s largest religious minority group and the largest Christian population in the Middle East, suffer from many forms of discrimination, including–

(1) a lack of employment in higher positions of the public sector, universities, army, and the security service;

(2) disproportional representation in Parliament and Shura Council;

(3) difficulty in building and repairing churches;

(4) lack of protection and lack of prosecution of perpetrators in cases of sectarian violence;

(5) government harassment of converts to Christianity while the government encourages conversion to Islam;

(6) the inability to obtain government issued identification cards which reflect conversion to Christianity; and

(7) prejudice against Christian guardians in child custody cases which involve parents of both Muslim and Christian faith;

Whereas blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman is still serving a four-year prison sentence for the peaceful expression of his views and is the first Egyptian blogger to be charged and convicted for blaspheming Islam, inciting sectarian strife, and criticizing President Hosni Mubarak;

Whereas Egyptian authorities continue to apply the law on nongovernmental organizations in an arbitrary and discretionary manner, dissolving and harassing Egyptian human rights and political advocacy organizations;

Whereas the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and its founder, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, have been threatened for their work to promote democratic reforms;

Whereas Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim has been convicted in absentia on politically motivated charges;

Whereas other civil society development organizations, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, have also been restricted in their work;

Whereas excessive use of force by Egyptian security, including against African migrants at the Egypt-Israel border, is occurring in violation of Egypt’s obligations to protect fundamental human rights; and

Whereas the recent arrests and action against nongovernmental organizations and human rights defenders undermines the commitments entered into by the Egyptian Government concerning fundamental rights and freedoms and the democratic process in the country: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) recognizes that respect for human rights is a fundamental value, and the bilateral relationship between the United States and Egypt should be a platform for promoting the rule of law and fundamental freedoms;

(2) calls on the Egyptian Government to end all forms of harassment, including judicial measures, the detention of media professionals and, more generally, human rights defenders and activists calling for reforms and to fully respect freedom of expression, in conformity with article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

(3) encourages the Egyptian Government to honor its commitment to repeal the state of emergency in order to allow for the full consolidation of the rule of law in Egypt;

(4) encourages the Egyptian Government to take the steps necessary to fully implement and protect the rights of religious minorities as full citizens;

(5) strongly supports measures to guarantee academic freedom, freedom of the media, and freedom of religion or belief in Egypt, including by ending arbitrary administrative measures, such as those taken against the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services;

(6) urges the Egyptian Government not to impose arbitrary restrictions on the peaceful activities of civil society organizations;

(7) calls on the Egyptian Government for–

(A) the immediate and unconditional release of Abdel Karim Suleiman and all other political prisoners and democracy activists;

(B) an end to the harassment of the Koranists; and

(C) a repeal of the 1960 presidential decree banning members of the Baha’i community from practicing their faith;

(8) welcomes the Egyptian Government’s decision to pardon opposition political leader Ayman Nour for medical reasons after he served three of his five-year prison sentence;

(9) stresses the need to fully implement the principles of the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1993 International Convention concerning the rights and the protection of migrant workers and their families;

(10) supports the concluding observations of the United Nations Committee on Migrant Workers of May 2007, which called for the re-opening of the investigations into the killing of 27 Sudanese asylum-seekers in December 2005;

(11) calls for an immediate end to Egypt’s `shoot to stop’ border policy which has left at least 32 African migrants, including women and children, dead;

(12) calls for an end to all forms of torture and ill treatment and calls for investigations when there is reasonable suspicion that acts of torture have occurred;

(13) calls on the Egyptian Government to allow–

(A) a visit by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and

(B) a visit by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;

(14) emphasizes the importance of ensuring and strengthening the independence of the judiciary by amending or repealing all legal provisions that infringe or do not sufficiently guarantee its independence;

(15) stresses the need for respect and protection of the freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion as ensured in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion and Belief;

(16) encourages Egypt and all other parties concerned to redouble efforts to fight smuggling through tunnels into the Gaza strip; and

(17) urges the President and the Secretary of State to put human rights and religious freedom developments in Egypt very high on the United States Government’s agenda during meetings with Egyptian officials.

 
 

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