Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Egypt Placed on "Watch List"

Egypt has been included by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its "Watch List" for this year.

Besides the 11 other "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) the Commission explained the watch list, in its press release of May 2, 2008, as follows:
The Commission has also established a Watch List of countries where conditions do not rise to the statutory level requiring CPC designation but which require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments. Countries on the Commission's Watch List for 2008 are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
The full report was presented by the Commission to President Bush and the Honorable Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State, on May 1, 2008.

The press release of May 2, 2008, describes the situation in Egypt as:
In Egypt, the government has taken inadequate measures to stop repression of minority religious adherents and "unorthodox Muslims" or, in many cases, to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom. Despite some increased public space to discuss religious freedom issues in the media and other fora as well as some positive, but limited, judicial rulings on some religious freedom cases, serious religious freedom violations continue to affect Coptic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Baha'is, as well as members of minority Muslim communities, all of whom are also subject to religiously-motivated attacks. The government has also done too little to combat rampant anti-Semitism in the state media.
The following are some excerpts from the full report regarding religious freedom in Egypt:
Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as non-conforming Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt. Over the past few years, the Egyptian government has adopted several measures to acknowledge the religious pluralism of Egyptian society, including increased efforts to promote interfaith activity. Yet the government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression of and discrimination against religious believers, including the indigenous Coptic Orthodox Christians, or, in many cases, to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom. The government also has not taken adequate steps to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media. On a positive note, in January 2008, Cairo’s Court of Administrative Justice overturned the ban on providing official identity documents to members of the Baha’i faith by allowing Baha’is to put “other,” dashes (--), or not list their religious affiliation at all on their identity documents. There was also increased public space to discuss and debate a wide range of religious freedom concerns in the media and other public fora, which, in previous years, was discouraged and prevented by Egyptian authorities. Nevertheless, due to persistent, serious concerns, Egypt remains on the Commission’s Watch List and will continue to be monitored to determine if the situation rises to a level that warrants designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC.
Other paragraphs concerning the Baha'i case are quoted below:
Members of Egypt’s non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Christians and Baha’is, report discrimination, interference, harassment, and surveillance by the Egyptian state security services.
All Baha’i institutions and community activities have been banned since 1960 by a presidential decree. As a result, Baha’is are 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. Almost all Baha’i community members are known to the state security services, and many are regularly subject to surveillance and other forms of harassment. 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. There has been increased intolerance of Baha’is in both the independent and government-controlled media in recent years.

In a positive development, in January 2008, Cairo’s Court of Administrative Justice overturned the ban on providing official identity documents to members of the Baha’i faith by allowing Baha’is to put “other,” dashes (--), or not list their religious affiliation at all on identity documents. The Egyptian government’s requirement that religious affiliation be included on national identity cards has particularly affected the Baha’i community, as it has been the case up until this ruling that only the three “heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) are recognized and protected under the Constitution. Although no such limitation appears in the Constitution itself, the state has interpreted the text in this way because only three religions are recognized in Islam. Since “Muslim, Jew, or Christian” are the only choices, Baha’is have been prevented 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. Moreover, the Egyptian government has made it illegal to be in public without an identity card. Because the Baha’i faith is banned, the community also has difficulty obtaining birth and death certificates, as well as obtaining or renewing passports. If fully implemented, this new ruling could potentially address one of the longstanding discriminatory polices related to freedom of religion or belief for Baha’is in Egypt. In April 2008, a press report indicated that the Egyptian Ministry of Interior decided not to appeal the January verdict, but planned to weaken it such that Baha’is would have the option only of putting dashes (--) in the religious affiliation section, and not writing “other” or leaving the section blank.

There have been attempts in the past to address this issue. In April 2006, a lower Egyptian administrative court ruled that a Baha’i couple should be permitted to identify their religious affiliation on official government documents. 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 2006, creating a renewed sense of insecurity in the Baha’i community. In August 2006, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a government-appointed advisory body, held an unprecedented public symposium in Cairo focused solely on the Egyptian government’s policy requiring citizens to list their religion on national identification cards. At the symposium, human rights and civil society groups testified that the Egyptian government should reverse its policy. Nevertheless, in December 2006, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Egyptian government’s discriminatory policy of prohibiting members of the Baha’i community from obtaining national identity cards. Because Baha’is were forced to choose between claiming adherence to a religion other than their own or foregoing an identity card and other official documents, the court’s ruling effectively denied Egyptian Baha’is their rights as citizens of Egypt and subjected them to particular hardship in obtaining education, employment, and social services. The recent law requiring all citizens to carry new, computerized identity cards means that those who do not carry them face detention and arrest. Although no such arrests have been made, in 2005 – 2006, a Baha’i was dismissed from a job and at least two Baha’is (a student and lecturer) were expelled from universities because they were unable to obtain identity cards.
In February 2008, the Commission issued a statement calling on the Egyptian government to respect the judicial rulings on identity cards for Baha’is and Christian converts, as discussed above. In June 2007, the Commission issued statements expressing concern about the May and June detention of five Koranists, and an appeal to the highest Egyptian court by 45 Coptic Christians requesting that their national identity cards officially recognize their return to Christianity. In May 2007, the Commission met in Washington, DC with the Deputy Chair of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights to discuss ongoing religious freedom concerns in Egypt. Also in May, then-Commission Vice Chair Nina Shea testified at a Members’ briefing of the Task Force on International Religious Freedom of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus entitled “Religious Freedom in Egypt: Recent Developments.”

In November 2006, the Commission issued a statement calling for the Egyptian government to reverse its discriminatory policy on national identity cards. In December, the Commission expressed deep regret over a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court of Egypt to uphold the Egyptian government’s discriminatory policy of prohibiting Baha’is from obtaining national identity cards.
Among other lines of action, the USCIRF is recommending to the US government to urge the Egyptian government to:
II. Implementing Additional Reform in Order to Comply with International Human Rights Standards

The U.S. government should also urge the Egyptian government to:
. repeal a 1960 presidential decree banning members of the Baha’i community from practicing their faith;
. exclude from all educational textbooks any language or images that promote enmity, intolerance, hatred, or violence toward any group of persons based on faith, gender, ethnicity, or nationality, and include in school curricula, textbooks, and teacher training the concepts of tolerance and respect for human rights, including religious freedom, ensuring that textbooks meet the standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
. cease all messages of hatred and intolerance, particularly toward Jews and Baha’is, in the government-controlled media and take active measures to promote understanding and respect for members of these and other minority religious communities;
. take all appropriate steps to prevent and punish acts of anti-Semitism, including condemnation of anti-Semitic acts, and, while vigorously protecting freedom of expression, counteract anti-Semitic rhetoric and other organized anti-Semitic activities;
. fully implement the January 2008 ruling of Egypt’s Court of Administrative Justice, which overturned the ban on providing official identity documents to members of the Baha’i faith by allowing Baha’is to put “other,” dashes (--), or not list their religious affiliation at all;
. remove the designation “formerly declared Muslim” from identity cards for those Christians who have converted back to Christianity from Islam, which makes the persons involved vulnerable to official harassment and societal violence;
. ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card either to (a) omit mention of religious affiliation from identity documents, or (b) make optional any mention of religious affiliation on identity documents, since currently, individuals must identify themselves as adherents of one of the three faiths recognized by the state—Islam, Christianity, or Judaism—or, as a result of the January 2008 ruling, put dashes (--) in the religious affiliation section;
. more actively investigate religious-based violence against Egyptian citizens, particularly Coptic Christians, prosecute perpetrators responsible for the violence, and ensure compensation for victims;
. investigate claims of police negligence and inadequate prosecution of those involved in the Al-Kosheh case, as well as other past instances of violence targeting individuals on account of their religion or belief, particularly members of the vulnerable Coptic Orthodox Christian community;
. request the National Council for Human Rights to investigate allegations of discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians as a human rights issue and to publish its findings and recommendations; and
. implement the 2002 recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture, as well as other relevant international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a party.
Through its efforts to correct and improve its human rights record, it is now in Egypt's interest to not only remain off the the list of "Countries of Particular Concern", but to also strive to come off this "Watch List".

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