Tuesday, July 31, 2007

US Congress: Briefing on Religious Freedom in Egypt

Nina Shea, Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recently presented a Briefing on “Religious Freedom in Egypt: Recent Developments” before the Task Force on Religious Freedom Of the United States House of Representatives. The Commission's Annual Report was published on 2 May 2007. The section on Egypt is on pages 203-211 of the report. The testimony was presented by Ms. Shea on 23 May 2007.

As the briefing went into great details in describing the violations of religious freedoms of the various minorities in Egypt, and because of the known focus of this blog, this post will point mainly to the sections of the briefing where it mentioned the crisis currently facing the Baha'is of Egypt.

In the introductory paragraphs it states: "...These violations include continued prosecution in state security courts and imprisonment of those accused of “unorthodox” Islamic religious beliefs or practices, including those who are not militants; discrimination against, restrictions on, interference with, and harassment and surveillance of members of non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Christians and Baha’is, by the Egyptian state security services...."

Later on it states: "...Under the Emergency Law, the security forces are given license to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, hold detainees in prolonged pretrial detention, and occasionally engage in mass arrests. Thousands of persons have been detained without charge on suspicion of illegal terrorist or political activity; others are serving sentences after being convicted on similar charges. Non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Christians and Baha’is, report discrimination, interference, harassment, and surveillance by these same state security services."

It also describes the specific issues facing the Baha'is in the following two paragraphs:
"Life in Egypt is particularly difficult for members of the Baha’i faith, whose institutions and community activities have been banned since 1960 by a presidential decree, leaving them unable to meet and engage in group religious activities. Over the years, Baha’is have been arrested and imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, often on charges of insulting Islam. Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Center has issued fatwas (religious edicts) in recent years urging the continued ban on the Baha’i community and condemning Baha’is as apostates.

The Egyptian government’s requirement that religious affiliation be included on national identity cards especially affects the Baha’i community. Since only Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are protected under the Constitution, these are the only choices for religious affiliation, effectively preventing Baha’is from obtaining identity cards, which are needed for many basic transactions, such as opening a bank account, buying a car, or obtaining a driver’s license. There was a glimmer of hope in April 2006, when a lower Egyptian administrative court ruled that a Baha’i couple should be permitted to identify their religious affiliation on official government documents. However, this positive development proved short-lived, as the Interior Ministry appealed the ruling following the advice of religious authorities and some parliamentary members. A higher court suspended the original decision in May, creating a sense of insecurity in the Baha’i community. In December of last year, the Supreme Administrative Court ruling upheld the government’s discriminatory policy of prohibiting Egyptian Baha’is from obtaining a national identity card. When the Commission visited Egypt in July 2004, we met with representatives of the Baha’i community who expressed to us in very stark terms the ramifications for their lives in Egypt without identity cards—they would essentially be shoved to the perimeters of society and prevented from pursuing normal, everyday functions needed to sustain themselves."

Regarding Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), the briefing states the following:
"On a positive note, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a government-appointed advisory body which was formed in 2003, has emerged as an important entity in Egypt. The Commission met with a representative of the NCHR just yesterday, and was encouraged to hear of some of its new efforts in addressing religious freedom concerns. In November 2005, the NCHR announced the formation of a sub-group, the “Citizenship Committee,” to focus on religious freedom issues. As a result, the NCHR’s 2006 annual report contained increased reporting on religious freedom concerns, including on the situation of Baha’is; problems facing Jehovah’s Witnesses; violence targeting Christians; and the need for the government to pass a law on the construction of new places of worship for all religious groups."

The briefing concludes with the following recommendations:
"The Commission has made several specific recommendations for U.S. policy which are included in our Annual Report, which was just released three weeks ago. I would like to highlight a few of those recommendations if I may.

The Commission has recommended the U.S. government should establish a timetable for implementation of political and human rights reforms; if deadlines are not met, the U.S. government should reconsider the appropriate allocation of its assistance to the Egyptian government. Finally, in the context of the annual congressional appropriation for U.S. assistance to Egypt, Congress should require the State Department to report to it annually on the extent to which the government of Egypt has made progress on the issues described here and in my written testimony.

The Commission also recommends that the U.S. government urge the Egyptian government to:
. repeal the state of emergency, in existence since 1981, in order to allow for the full consolidation of the rule of law in Egypt, but ensure that the emergency decree is not replaced by other legislation that allows security forces to continue such actions as arbitrary arrest, pro-longed detention without charge, and torture and other ill-treatment;
. remove de facto responsibility for religious affairs from the state security services, with the exception of cases involving violence or the advocacy of violence;
. repeal Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which “prohibits citizens from ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife”; allow for full access to the constitutional and international guarantees of the rule of law and due process for those individuals charged with violating Article 98(f); and release Internet blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman and any individuals convicted under Article 98(f) on account of their religion or belief;
. implement procedures that would ensure that all places of worship are subject to the same transparent, non-discriminatory, and efficient regulations regarding construction and maintenance;
. repeal a 1960 presidential decree banning members of the Baha’i community from practicing their faith and ensure that every Egyptian can obtain a national identity card by either (a) omitting mention of religious affiliation, or (b) making optional any mention of religious affiliation;
. cease all messages of hatred and intolerance, particularly toward Jews and Baha’is, in the government-controlled media; and
. more actively investigate religious-based violence against Egyptian citizens, particularly Coptic Christians, prosecute perpetrators responsible for the violence, and ensure compensation for victims.

Mr. Chairman, only a few years ago, our government was an outspoken advocate of democratic reform and human rights in Egypt. Yet, in the past year or so, U.S. policy has shifted and there have been missed opportunities by U.S. officials to express publicly their concerns regarding religious freedom. The U.S. government has become seemingly reluctant to condemn developments in Egypt that clearly signal a backsliding in human rights protections. Yes, Egypt is an important country—to the United States and in the world today. Yes, the Egyptian government appears to be making great efforts to combat extremism; yet, these same security services that work actively against extremists seem unable—or unwilling—to find the perpetrators of extremist violence against religious minorities and hold them to account.

Egypt also receives a substantial amount of U.S. assistance. It is critical that our government hold the Egyptian government accountable for its policies and practices that violate the human rights, including religious freedom, of so many Egyptians.

Thank you Mr. Chairman. I welcome any questions that you might have."


  1. I am glad to see the US Commission on International Religious Freedom making such a clear statement about the hindrances to religious freedom in Egypt and concluding with a range of excellent recommendations, including the removal of Presidential Decree 263 of 1960 (the decree that effectively bans all Baha'i activity in Egypt). I hope the US Congress and the US Government pay heed to what the Commission says.

  2. Overall, I think it is a very strong statement, clearly naming the expected possible consequences.

  3. Among the key recommendations mentioned in the report are the twin conditions that would see a complete reinstatement of human rights for the Baha'i community; repeal of the 1960 presidential decree that banned religious practice, as well as the issuance of the national identity card. Both are mentioned hand in hand, and it could not be otherwise since the implementation of human rights cannot be achieved by going half way. It is significant that these are mentioned collectively and present a definitive and transparent motive on behalf of the Commission.

    While the restriction of financial aid has some effect in constraining human rights violations, there may need to be further considerations. It is justified that an individual country withhold financial aid, but this also needs to be complimented with the support and performance of supplementary conditions from countries and institutions of the same cause. If it is a unilateral implementation, the response from the Egyptian government, no matter how unjustified, may be played as that of reverse oppression and coercion. This has been seen before. Efforts need to be aligned and applied as a single package. It would be even more effective if the voice of Islamic communities be included; those who have witnessed the benefits of free and progressive societies.

    There is also some hesitance as to how significant - and valued - are the funds received through the various financial aid programs to the Egyptian government. There are numerous financial sources that Egypt draws from - including its inherent wealth of natural resources, in addition to considerable foreign investments - which would indicate the limited and insignificant consequences of a singular financial restriction.

  4. R.A.,
    You are quite correct about the two conditions: ID cards and the repeal of the 1960 presidential decree.

    As to the financial aid question, I do not think that as individuals we are in a position to make judgments regarding its implications. As you well know, this is a very complex matter that is privy to the governments involved. What is important here is accountability and adherence to the rules of international law concerning individual human and civil rights.

    The question of the Baha’is of Egypt is quite straightforward: they are law-abiding Egyptian citizens entitled to all the rights and privileges, as well as all constitutional guarantees, due to them as equal citizens—nothing less!

  5. It's moments like these that make me especially proud to be an American. Thanks for sharing this Bilo.

  6. Pillipe,
    I hope one day that many others can be also proud to be Egyptians!

  7. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.


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