Monday, September 17, 2007

"Daily News" on Religious Freedom in Egypt

Daily News Egypt, distributed by the International Herald Tribune (IHT), published an article yesterday authored by Jonathan Spollen with the headline "US report slams religious freedom in Egypt."

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The full text of the article is posted below with the author's permission:

US report slams religious freedom in Egypt

By Jonathan Spollen
First Published: September 16, 2007

CAIRO: According to the US State Department’s annual report on religious freedom, conditions in Egypt as well as a number of other countries including Iran, Iraq and China, have deteriorated.

A significant section of the 800-page report released Friday is allocated to religious freedom in Egypt, and tackles issues such as the freedom to choose one’s religion, the legal status of minority religions like Christianity and Baha’ism, sectarianism, forced conversions, and freedom to build places of worship.

Egypt’s courts have strongly resisted attempts by Muslims to convert to Christianity in recent months. High-profile cases such as those of Mohammed Hegazy and 12 Christian-born Muslims who are currently pressing to revert to Christianity, have shone the spotlight on the country’s attitude toward religious freedom.

Egypt has also been wracked by numerous incidents of sectarian violence, and a series of clashes between Muslims and Christians in areas like Bimha, South of Cairo, and Udayssat, near Luxor, are cited in the report.

Many such incidents, the report notes, arise from disagreements over the building and repairing of churches, the approval process for which is often “hindered by lengthy delays, often measured in years”.

The report acknowledges that a 2005 Presidential decree allows local authorities to deal with requests for church building and reparations in order to speed up the process, but points out that delays by the Interior Ministry and local authorities cause many requests to reach the President “slowly or not at all”.

A statement issued yesterday by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry rejected the report, saying it "confuses official policy with events caused by societal sensitivities."

Yet the refusal to recognize the Bahai faith, which is also condemned in the report, is official government policy. Members of this group experience “personal and collective hardship,” the report says.

The Bahais are denied ID cards, birth and death certificates, and their marriages are not recognized by law. They also face difficulties availing of public services such as health and education.

According to Labib Hanna, a Bahai and professor of mathematics at Cairo University, this makes life extremely difficult for the Bahai community.

“Even the simple things like getting my driving license renewed, are hard,” he told Daily news Egypt.

An April 2006 decision by the Administrative Court, which had supported the right of Bahai citizens to receive ID cards and birth certificates with religion noted on the documents, was overturned in December 2006 following a government appeal. Members of the Bahai community are currently fighting the decision in court.

Hanna agrees with the report’s premise that religious freedom has declined in recent years, but says he is hopeful that civil society organizations and the National Council for Human Rights, who work to promote religious freedom, will bring about change.

Although there has been a “general decline” in freedom of religion in recent years says Yousef Sidhom, editor of Christian weekly Watani, there have been some encouraging signs too.

“Christians are making a comeback in public life,” he told Daily News Egypt, “in marked contrast to their withdrawal from Egyptian public life over the past 30 years.”

Sidhom points out that more Copts were elected to the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) regional commissions this month (albeit because they would have “no chance” in national elections), and adds that the public controversy over conversions indicates that people are becoming bolder about their right to choose what they believe in.

“Conversion cases have always been there but were beneath the surface. Now more individuals have the courage to reveal their intentions to convert.”

The report goes on to criticize the under-representation of Christians in politics, pointing out that although Christians comprise between 8-12 percent of the population, they hold less that two percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and Shoura Council.

Government practices, it continues, discriminate against Christians in hiring for the public sector and making staff appointments to public universities. Christians are also banned from studying at the publicly-funded Al-Azhar schools and university, and public funds pay Muslim imams but not Christian clergy.

The Foreign Ministry maintains that the report “reflects an ignorance of the true situation in Egypt”.

"Egyptian-American relations are broad and diverse, but that does not give the United States the right to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs under any pretext,” the Ministry said in a statement.

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