A State of Denial: Religious Freedom in Egypt 

By: Dwight Bashir

Some in Egypt hail the overwhelming backing of last week’s constitutional referendum as a repudiation of the 2012 constitution approved during the Morsi era. However, most Egyptians would tell you a “yes” vote was not about the substance of the constitution, but a vote for moving Egypt forward, whatever “forward” might mean.

Regardless of where one stands on Egypt’s constitutional referendum and further steps in the post-June 30 roadmap, one thing is certain: the ideals of the January 25, 2011 revolution remain unfulfilled. The once-touted “democratic transition” has become an experiment gone haywire, characterized by repeated setbacks and government stifling of all kinds of dissent.

An important indicator of the status of Egypt’s democratic experiment is the current state of freedom of religion or belief. Why religious freedom? Past experience and research show that governments that protect this universal right in their constitutions and their laws tend to become more stable and prosperous and respect other rights and freedoms.

During numerous visits to Egypt over the years, including one earlier this month, I have encountered a recurring theme: government officials remain in denial about poor conditions for religious freedom and have little worry about implications. In fact, officials under Mubarak struck a near identical tone when responding to such concerns. This stubborn state of denial – combined with a strong dose of defiance and hubris – has impeded any sustainable or measurable progress.

Since the uprisings in the Arab world began in early 2011, the Pew Research Center has found that the Egyptian government imposes the highest level of restrictions on religion than any other country in the world, even more so than first class violators such as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Despite these findings and pleas from Egyptian human rights groups, government officials continue to deny, or at least downplay, facts on the ground. What’s worse, the government continues to deny the existence of an ongoing targeting of Coptic Christians.

During the period of military rule in 2011, nearly 100 Copts were killed in sectarian-fueled attacks, the highest number of yearly deaths in more than a decade. Some argued that the violence against Copts was just the consequence of heightened lawlessness and inadequate security throughout the country. Upon closer inspection, this argument does not hold up. A number of incidents were either the result of excessive force or complicit activity by security forces (Maspero, October 2011) or inaction by authorities to protect Copts and their property from mob attacks (Imbaba, March 2011). Giving the benefit of the doubt, one would assume these murders would be properly investigated, prosecuted, and the perpetrators brought to justice. Unfortunately, there has been no justice for these and other similar incidents over the past three years and beyond. This lack of accountability continues to foster an atmosphere of impunity, making future attacks more likely.

During the short-lived Morsi-era, not only did sectarian rhetoric and incitement to violence by Islamist clerics proliferate during the year, but attacks on religious minority communities continued. Two incidents during this period illustrate the consequences of sectarian-motivated violence and increased hate speech. First, in April 2013, police failed to prevent an attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral during a funeral. The funeral was being held for five Copts who were killed (along with a Muslim) after sectarian attacks two days earlier. This was the first attack on the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope in centuries. Second, in June, five members of the Shi’a community were removed from a private home where they were commemorating a religious holiday and were lynched in the streets outside Cairo by an angry mob chanting anti-Shi’a slogans. More than six months later, investigations are ongoing but still no justice.

There should be no doubt that the vast majority of such incidents are not the by-product of societal tensions between Muslims and Christians or Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. They are nothing less than targeted sectarian attacks against Copts and Shiites by religious extremists and thugs. While occasional family feuds and failed romantic relationships between Muslims and Christians sometimes result in disputes, targeted violence against Christians should never be understood in terms of equal culpability. Neither should violence or discrimination against the Shi’a community be conflated with ill-will toward Iran’s theocracy or its perceived “spread of Shiism [sic] in Sunni lands.”

In the post-June 30 environment, excessive security measures by the interim government have had a chilling effect on religious freedom. After the horrific August 14 dispersal and killing of hundreds of Morsi supporters by security forces, mobs chanting pro-Morsi and pro-Islamist slogans perpetrated unprecedented attacks on dozens of churches and Coptic-owned businesses and property during a 48-72 hour period. More than five months later, a commission of inquiry has been formed and an investigation is ongoing, but still no justice or accountability.

In addition, the past three years have seen a proliferation of “contempt-of-religion” cases primarily against Muslim dissidents and Copts. An in-depth study released in September found that at least 40% of the blasphemy cases between January 2011 and August 2013 resulted in criminal cases against Copts, a disproportionate percentage. While majority Sunni Muslims have been the primary victims of such cases, Shi’a Muslims and atheists also are targets.

Furthermore, Egypt’s Baha’i community continues to be banned under a 1960 presidential decree. While there was some optimism during the constitutional drafting process after Amr Moussa, chairman of the Committee of 50,met with Baha’i community members to hear their grievances, no concrete improvements followed.

During the drafting process, some members of the Committee of 50 introduced language that would have replaced “Christians and Jews” in Article 3 with “non-Muslims” – thus expanding the scope of rights – but the sole Nour party member and Al-Azhar’s representatives vehemently opposed the new formulation, deeming Baha’is unworthy of protections. Salafi and other Islamist sentiment toward Baha’is should come as no surprise; it is also not news that Al-Azhar opposed the language given its history of labeling Baha’is as apostates. This is despite the fact that in 1925 an Egyptian court recognized the Baha’i faith as a separate and distinct religion from Islam, the first court to do so in the Arab world. Today, some Egyptian officials tell me that Baha’is should sue for recognition, although a 1975 attempt by the community was rejected by the Supreme Constitutional Court based on its interpretation of Article 21 of the 1971 constitution, which was unchanged in the new constitution. Meanwhile, married Baha’is still cannot obtain identity cards, making it impossible to conduct daily transactions like banking, school registration, or car ownership.

Not all is grim. When compared to the Morsi-era 2012 constitution, the new constitution includes positive additions and subtractions related to freedom of religion or belief, particularly for Copts, although how the provisions are interpreted and implemented will be the true test. Unfortunately, since the constitutional bar was set so low in 2012, the scope of religious freedom protections for all Egyptians still falls short of international standards.

Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as defined under international human rights law (including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Egypt is a party) applies to every individual and should encompass more than just rituals and worship. It includes the right to manifest one’s faith or beliefs, individually or in community, in public or in private, through worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It also includes the right to change one’s religion, convince others to do likewise, or have no religion at all.

While some argue that the Egyptian government is treading a treacherous path as it handles sensitive religion and state matters and does not want to offend the sensibilities of conservative Muslims, this argument has no credibility. The current interim government has been willing to ban the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group, arrest and imprison its leadership, and prohibit political parties from using a religious platform, but it has not been willing to provide protections for all Egyptian citizens – whether Shi’a, Sufi, Copt, Baha’i, atheist, or otherwise – in its constitution, laws, and policies.

Days before the June 30, 2013 protests, I wrote that the Morsi government had failed to address the legitimate grievances of its people, including its religious minorities, and was far from inclusive of all segments of society. The next elected leaders will face the same challenges, but the stakes are even higher.

To avoid another colossal debacle, the Egyptian government must realize that ensuring accountability for sectarian violence and protecting the universal right to religious freedom for all Egyptians is not only in its interest but will have positive implications for stability and security. Until it does, Egypt’s democratic experiment will falter regardless of who comes to power; unless the government treads the path of pluralism and full inclusivity, the fleeting optimism that exists among some Egyptians today will be overcome by pessimism and disdain tomorrow.

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