Al-Ahram Weekly Online

Freedoms in focus, again

Dina Ezzat reports on a new episode of Egyptian-American tension, this time on religious freedoms

As expected, the release of the annual US State Department International Religious Freedom Report was no cause for kind words between Cairo and Washington. Accusations of abuses of religious freedoms met predictable repudiation on the Egyptian side. According to Egyptian and American sources, the matter will not go much further.

The report, which presents what the US perceives is the record of various governments on religious freedoms, is presented to US Congress for consideration. Initial drafts of the country reports are prepared by US embassies. According to State Department criteria, "abuses" encompass not only discrimination but also marginalisation of given religion groups.

In the case of Egypt, the report addresses what it qualifies as the concerns of Copts and minority Muslim sects. According to the report, respect for religious freedoms in Egypt by the government has "declined during the period covered by the report", being the past 12 months.

The US report credits the Egyptian constitution for its clarity in protecting the freedom of belief and religious practice. It takes issue, however, with the government for failing to honour these constitutional protections.

"Members of non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognised by the government generally worship without harassment and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries; however, members of religious groups that are not recognised by the government, particularly the Bahaai faith, experience personal and collective hardship."

Especially criticised in the report is the failure to afford Copts full and equal rights of citizenship. The report includes accounts of what it qualifies as clear discrimination against Copts. Further, the report criticises the government for ignoring presidential decrees issued to accommodate some Coptic concerns in relation to the construction and repair of churches.

Of particular interest to this year's report was the cases of a few Copt-born citizens who converted willingly to Islam but were disbarred from returning to Christianity when they wished to due to civil status regulations and relevant court decrees.

"On 24 April 2007, the Court of Administrative Justice ruled that the Interior Ministry was not obligated to recognise conversion to Christianity by Christian-born converts to Islam," the report said. It noted: "the court ruled that such recognition would violate the prohibition against apostasy under Islamic Sharia," and constitute a "manipulation of Islam and Muslims".

According to the report, such a ruling was "inconsistent with verdicts issued over the previous three years by another judge in the same court on behalf of 32 such converts and maintained a government policy not to provide a legal means for converts from Islam to Christianity to amend their civil records to reflect their new religious status." Previous court rulings had ordered the Interior Ministry to issue amended identification cards to 32 citizens who sought to reconvert to Christianity.

Responding to the report, the Foreign Ministry in Cairo issued a statement Sunday to refute its accusations. According to the statement "internal affairs in Egypt and matters related to state administration ought not to be issues for inquisition by any foreign body." The statement underlined close Egyptian-American relations but argued that such relations are no "pretext" for interference on the part of the US in Egyptian affairs.

According to the Foreign Ministry statement, the US State Department International Religious Freedom Report is "unfortunately, and typically, full of unfair and unfounded allegations that are proposed via a questionable methodology". The statement also accused the authors of the State Department report of failing to acknowledge key social particularities.

The Foreign Ministry statement underlined the government's full dedication to honouring religious freedoms in line with the Egyptian constitution and with all relevant international commitments.

Speaking on background, Egyptian officials said that the State Department report does not carry any particular significance and that it merits no further reaction from the Egyptian state at this point.

According to one official, if the matter were subject to debate in Congress, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington would be given opportunity to present a detailed account of the government's efforts to honour religious freedoms. "But it has to be made clear that such freedoms cannot contradict with the rules of Sharia, which is the prime source of laws and regulations in Egypt," the official stated.

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