Michael Meunier Testimony,
Congressional Human Rights Caucus
May 23, 2007
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of Congress, and good afternoon. My name is Michael Meunier, and I am pleased to testify on behalf of the U.S. Copts Association regarding human rights and religious freedom abuses against Egypt’s Coptic and other minorities.I will begin with a review of some recent human and civil rights abuses against Copts and Bahai’s, and move on to offer some policy recommendations for U.S. lawmakers.
The U.S. Copts Association is a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit advocacy group representing the Copts, Egypt’s indigenous Christians. As you may know, the Copts are an indigenous ethno-religious minority in Egypt, numbering between 11 and 13 million people and constituting between 12 and 15% of the Egyptian population. Copts of all denominations (Coptic Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic), and indeed other religious and cultural minorities such as Baha’is, continue to be targeted by both the Egyptian government through official legislation and by increasingly radicalized members of the Muslim majority. The abuse of Copts takes many forms, ranging from discriminatory laws preventing construction or renovation of churches to police neglect of anti-Coptic hate crimes such as physical attacks on Coptic businesses, homes, churches and parishioners.
A recent example of such hate crimes occurred this past week in the village of Behma, just south of Cairo, in which the Coptic community’s attempts to use a building for social services triggered violent physical attacks and acts of arson on behalf of some extremist Muslim residents. The attacks resulted in 10 injuries and the burning and destruction of over 45 homes and businesses. Such incidents, although reported only sporadically by the Western press, have in the past decade escalated to over 100 in number. In the past two years alone, anti-minority extremists have rioted against St. George’s Coptic Church of Alexandria; stabbed a Coptic nun; fatally stabbed an elderly Coptic parishioner as he sat in church; and have, as in Behma, incited rioting, acts of arson, and beatings targeting members of the Coptic community attempting church renovation or construction. An alarming trend has emerged from these incidents, in which Egyptian police force the Coptic victims to enter into (so-called) “peace settlements” with their Muslim attackers, drop all charges against them and agree to cease the church activities in which they had been involved before the riots. As such, Copts often not only lose their homes and businesses, but receive neither compensation nor justice from the government.
The Egyptian government has not only turned a proverbial “blind eye” to many acts of anti-Coptic employment discrimination, abduction and violence, but has consistently denied even the existence of sub-national minority groups. The Egyptian government has asserted publicly that “there are no minorities in Egypt,” implying that official recognition of Copts, Bahai’is and Nubians as minorities would unacceptably threaten Egypt’s “national unity.” When extremist groups and individuals have committed hate crimes against Coptic churches, Egyptian officials have dismissed such attacks as isolated incidents related to family feuds or the work of mentally ill individuals.
But perhaps the government’s most damaging action towards its minorities has been discriminatory legislation targeting non-Muslim groups such as Copts and Bahai’is. Although the Egyptian government claims “freedom of religion” for individuals of all faiths, the second article of the Egyptian Constitution (which the government refused to amend during its last constitutional changes) identifies the religion and law of Islam as the principle source of all Egyptian legislation. This legislative favoring of one religion to the detriment of others has been the source of several official and unofficial discriminatory policies and court rulings against Coptic citizens. One such ruling came at the end of this past April when a Cairo Administrative Court ruled that the Ministry of the Interior is not obligated to issue new identity documents for 45 Coptic Christians who converted to Islam and then decided to return to their original faith. While this ruling violated several articles of the Egyptian constitutions, it was consistent with the second article and in accordance with Sharia law, which prohibits converting form Islam under any circumstance. In a country in which conversion from Islam to another religion is prohibited, Muslim Egyptians wishing to convert to Bahai’ism, Christianity, Judaism or other religions suffer from the National I.D. card’s mandated –and inalterable—religion listing. Because of the laws prohibiting professed Muslims from conversion, and the corresponding inflexibility of religious listings on National I.D.s, these applicants were refused official recognition of their new religious status, thus rendering their identity documents inaccurate and, under the Islamic laws of Egypt, barring the female applicants from marriage to a non-Muslim.
But perhaps the most restrictive pieces of Egyptian legislation are those governing church construction, renovation, and location. The contemporary legislative interpretation of the Hamayouni codes restricting church construction and renovation—and some vigilantes’ violent enforcement of them—have been a root cause of many recent hate crimes against Coptic churches, homes, businesses and community members. Today, Copts wishing to construct a church are required to apply for and obtain a signature of approval from no less than President Mubarak himself, a process that can take up to 20 years.
Copts in Egypt face official government discrimination in many other areas -- including employment, political representation, government media, and education. In the interest of time, however, I will move to my recommendations and will submit the rest of my testimony for the record, if I may.
1- Members of Congress can shine a spotlight on discriminatory legislation such as mandatory listing of religion on identification documents and house of worship restriction for Copts and other non-Muslim communities. The first step toward alleviating inequities between religious groups’ access to houses of worship—and the first step toward eliminating related hate crimes—is the creation of a unified law or code for the construction of all places of worship, churches, mosques and others. Such a law would treat equally Muslim and non-Muslim applications for houses of worship and would not unduly restrict Copts by requiring them alone to obtain personal Presidential or gubernatorial approval. Egypt should also be encouraged to adapt a secular constitution that does not favor one religion over another.
2- Members of this Caucus and their colleagues throughout Congress can also urge Egypt to adopt pro-active policies improving the civil rights and political representation of her minorities. Congress can encourage Egypt to re-adopt a former policy setting aside a given percentage of Parliamentary seats for minorities such as Copts, Bahai’is and Nubians. A mechanism to achieve this is using a ‘list’ parliamentary election system. Instead of voting for individual candidates, Egyptians would vote for “lists” of candidates including appropriate proportions of Muslim and non-Muslim candidates. If all political parties are made to use the same list composition, Copts, women and other minority groups will be represented..
3-Minority communities would benefit from political education programs emphasizing the need for political participation from members of every Egyptian cultural, religious and ethnic group, and from the ability to participate in their own governments. Congress can make this happen by appropriating specific funds for democratic development among minority groups inside Egypt.4- Lastly, I am sad to say that the above solutions are not workable solutions in the current environment in Egypt as long as the Egyptian government continues to tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideology of hatred and violence. The Brotherhood and its ideology has infiltrated the Egyptian government on all levels including judiciary, police, media and education. While the next literal victims of the Brotherhood’s ideology may be Copts being publicly slaughtered on the streets of Egypt followed by the Egyptian regime itself, ultimately it is American interests in Egypt and throughout the region that will suffer the most. I invite you to imagine the threat to our National Security here in the U.S., and to our freedom and values, with an extremist group such as the Brotherhood in power in Egypt. One of the most disheartening and disappointing issues to all Americans of Egyptian descent is the lack of clarity on the U.S. policy towards, and dealings with, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood . The Brotherhood is one of the most violent organizations in recent history, and its ideology and teachings of hatred are of the kind that led to the attacks on September 11th. Further, the Brotherhood’s incitement against non-Muslim minorities has been one of the primary sources of the culture of intolerance facing Copts in Egypt today. It was greatly disappointing to note Congressman Hoyer’s meeting the MP Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such meetings not only embolden the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt, but are appropriated by the Brotherhood for its own propaganda and agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda has been to prove to the Egyptian population that it can govern, and to prove to the international community that the Brotherhood is an acceptable partner to the U.S. I believe the members of the Caucus can work with their colleagues to, first, create a uniform foreign policy that weakens the Brotherhood, and second, eliminate threats to the rights and lives of minorities in Egypt—indeed, around the world—by denouncing the Brotherhood’s claims to legitimacy. Finally, it is imperative that Congress pressure Egypt to cleanse her police, state security and judicial institutions of their radicalized members and Brotherhood supporters. Michael MeunierPresident,U.S. Copts Association.