Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Egypt

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2005
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Egypt, 1 May 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4855697bc.html [accessed 31 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, including non-conforming Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt. In the last two years, the Egyptian government has adopted some measures to acknowledge the religious pluralism of Egypt's society, including the addition of materials in its public school curriculum on Coptic Christian contributions to Egypt's history; the issuance of a presidential decree designating Coptic Christmas as an official national holiday; the formation of a National Council for Human Rights; and increased efforts in promoting interfaith activity. Yet, the government has not taken adequate steps to halt 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. Nor has the government taken steps to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the media. Egypt remains on the Commission's Watch List, and the Commission continues to monitor the actions of the government of Egypt to see if the situation rises to a level that warrants designation as a "country of particular concern," or CPC.

Egypt has a poor overall human rights record that includes repressive practices which seriously violate freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. The government maintains tight control over all Muslim religious institutions, including mosques and religious endowments, which are encouraged to promote an officially sanctioned interpretation of Islam. According to Egyptian officials, the government regulates these Muslim institutions and activities as a necessary precaution against religious extremism and terrorism. The state appoints and pays the salaries of all Sunni Muslim imams; all mosques must be licensed by the government; and sermons are monitored by the government.

There is a growing sense among human rights organizations that Islamic extremism is advancing in Egypt with detrimental effects on the prospects for democratic reform, religious tolerance, and the rights of women and girls. Some believe that the government is not acting to its fullest ability to counteract this problem, especially in the area of public education and the media, where the extremist influence is growing.

There is continued prosecution in State Security Courts and imprisonment for those accused of "unorthodox" Islamic religious beliefs or practices that insult the three "heavenly religions": Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which prohibits citizens from "ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife," continues to be applied to prosecute alleged acts by purportedly "unorthodox" Muslims. These include Muslims groups, such as the Koranites, who are accused of practicing beliefs deemed to deviate from Islamic law. In May 2002, a group of 21 persons were referred to trial in a State (Emergency) Security Court, accused of "insulting religion due to unorthodox Islamic beliefs and practices." Several of those charged were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Amnesty International reports that in February 2003, State Security Courts sentenced six people to six months imprisonment for "contempt of religion" in connection with holding private religious gatherings and advocating modifications to basic Islamic rules. In December 2003, state security services arrested and imprisoned 20 Shia Muslims without charge and subsequently interrogated them concerning their religious beliefs; they were reportedly physically abused. According to the State Department, 19 of the Shia were released by August 2004, though one remains in detention. In December 2004, 13 "unorthodox" Muslims were referred to trial by a State Emergency Court on charges of "insulting heavenly religions"; their status is currently unknown.

Members of Egypt's non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Christians, Jews, and Baha'is, report discrimination, interference, harassment, and surveillance by the Egyptian state security services. Although neither the Constitution nor the Penal Code prohibits proselytizing or conversion, the State Department has observed that the Egyptian government uses the Penal Code to discourage proselytizing by non-Muslims. Article 98 (f) of the Code is used frequently to prosecute alleged acts of proselytism by non-Muslims.

Coptic Orthodox and other Christian denominations face ongoing problems with societal intolerance and violence by Muslim extremists, and the government has not adequately addressed those problems. Egyptian authorities have been accused of being lax in protecting the lives and property of Christians, though some Christian groups have reported fewer attacks by extremists in the last year. Egyptian government officials have confirmed that in June 2004, the Court of Cassation upheld the acquittal of 94 of 96 suspects who were charged with various offenses in connection with the killing of 21 Christians in Al-Kosheh in late 1999 and early 2000. The decision has left public prosecutors and Christian advocates with no further legal options within the Egyptian legal system. Some Egyptian human rights advocates believe that the only recourse is to urge Egyptian authorities to investigate claims of police negligence and inadequate prosecution of those involved in the violence.

In addition to violence, Christians face official and societal discrimination. Although Egyptian government officials claim that there is no law or policy that prevents Christians from holding senior positions, the Coptic Orthodox Christian community faces de facto discrimination in appointments to high-level government posts. For all Christian groups, government permission must still be sought to build or repair a church, and the approval process for church construction is time consuming and inflexible. Although President Mubarak reportedly approves applications for new construction and that, under new regulations, provincial governors now have the authority to approve applications for church repair, hundreds of applications are languishing in the system. Even some permits that have been approved cannot be acted upon because of interference by the state security services, at both the local and national levels.

Known converts from Islam to Christianity generally receive attention from the state security services, and converts have been arrested for attempting to change their religious affiliation on identity documents. Most conversions are reportedly done quietly and privately. Egyptian government officials have stated that no law prevents conversion, but some individuals have been arrested for falsifying documents. In some instances, converts, who fear government harassment if they officially register their change in religion from Islam to Christianity, have reportedly altered their own identification cards and other official documents to reflect their new religious affiliation. A recent court decision in 2004 affirmed that the state could not prevent a woman from changing the religion on her identity card from Muslim to Christian. According to the State Department, it is not clear if this decision will set a precedent for future cases involving conversion of individuals from Islam to Christianity.

Baha'is also face repression and violations of their rights. 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 communal 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 reportedly also been increased intolerance of Baha'is in both the independent and government-controlled media in recent years. The Egyptian government's requirement that religious affiliation be included on national identity cards particularly affects the Baha'i community. Because "Muslim, Jew, or Christian" are the only allowable choices, Baha'is are effectively prevented from obtaining the cards, which are necessary to engage in many basic transactions such as opening a bank account, buying a car, or obtaining a driver's license. Moreover, the Egyptian government has recently made it illegal to be in public without an identity card. Because the Baha'i faith is banned, the community also has difficulty obtaining or renewing passports, birth certificates, and death certificates. Egyptian government officials have stated that the rights of Baha'is are not protected under the Constitution, since, in accordance with Islamic principles, protection applies only to adherents of the three "heavenly religions": Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Material vilifying Jews – with historical and new anti-Semitic stereotypes – appears regularly in the state-controlled and semi-official media. This material includes Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic cartoons, and television programming, such as a 24-part series based on the notorious anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Egyptian authorities have not taken adequate steps to combat anti-Semitism in the media. Human rights groups also cite persistent, virulent anti-Semitism in the education system, which is increasingly under the influence of Islamic extremists, a development that the Egyptian government has not adequately addressed. The small Jewish community maintains and owns its property and performs required maintenance through private donations without excessive interference from local authorities. However, state security services continue to regulate and approve those permitted to make repairs, which, in some cases, has created problems and delays.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, who believe in or seek to establish an Islamic state in Egypt based on their interpretation of Islamic law, are considered illegal organizations by the Egyptian government under a law prohibiting political parties based on religion. The Muslim Brotherhood and some of these other groups have used violence in the past to achieve their aims, including the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and attacks on foreign tourists. Some groups continue to advocate violence. Egyptian security forces continue to arrest hundreds of Islamists every year, and some are subject to torture and/or prolonged detention without charge. According to human rights groups, there are currently 12,000-15,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in administrative detention whose cases are not being addressed. Groups that closely monitor the detention of such individuals claim that the vast majority of these prisoners are in prison as a result of their political beliefs or activities, and not on the basis of religion.

In July 2004, a Commission delegation traveled to Egypt. While there, the delegation met with senior government officials, religious leaders, human rights groups, scholars, educators, legal specialists, and others active in civil society. Throughout the past year, the Commission and its staff met with members of non-governmental organizations representing various religious communities in Egypt, as well as civil society and human rights groups, and other Egypt experts.

With regard to Egypt, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should urge the Egyptian government to:

  • shift de facto responsibility for religious affairs from the state security services, with the exception of cases involving violence, and establish a body or position (e.g., an ombudsman) in the office of the President to oversee religious affairs in Egypt;
  • repeal the state of emergency, in existence since 1981, in order to allow for the full consolidation of the rule of law in Egypt;
  • repeal the nineteenth-century, Ottoman-era Hamayouni Decree, which requires non-Muslims to obtain a presidential decree to build a new place of worship, and ensure that all places of worship are subject to the same transparent, non-discriminatory, and efficient criteria and procedures for construction and maintenance;
  • allow full access to the constitutional and international guarantees of the rule of law and due process for those individuals charged with violating Section 98 (f) of the Penal Code, which "prohibits citizens from ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife," instead of having those cases heard by the State Security Courts;
  • 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, in school textbooks, and in teacher training the concepts of tolerance and respect for human rights, including religious freedom, ensuring that textbooks meet the standards for education 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;
  • ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card either (a) to omit mention of religious affiliation from identity documents, or (b) to make optional any mention of religious affiliation on identity documents, since currently, individuals must identify themselves as adherents of one of the three recognized faiths: Islam, Christianity, or Judaism;
  • urge the Egyptian government more actively to investigate societal violence against any individuals or groups on the basis of their religion, particularly the targeting of Coptic Orthodox Christians, to bring those responsible for such violence to justice, and to ensure compensation for those targeted;
  • investigate claims of police negligence and inadequate prosecution of those involved in the Al-Kosheh case;
  • request the National Council for Human Rights to investigate allegations of discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians as a human rights issue and to publish their findings and recommendations;
  • repeal a 1960 presidential decree banning the Baha'i community from practicing their faith; and
  • implement the 2002 recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture.

In addition, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

  • negotiate an agreement with the Egyptian government to establish a timetable and specific steps to be taken to make progress on political and legal reforms, including the steps described in the recommendations above; if deadlines are met in a timely manner, the U.S. government should consider, within the boundaries of its overall aid to Egypt, providing economic assistance to areas where significant progress has been made, but if deadlines are not met, the U.S. government should re-consider the dimension and direction of its economic assistance;
  • offer direct support for human rights and other civil society non-governmental organizations (NGOs) without prior approval by the Egyptian government;
  • urge the Egyptian government to ensure that NGOs engaged in human rights work can pursue their activities without undue government interference, and monitor and report to what extent this is accomplished;
  • expand support of initiatives to advance human rights, promote religious tolerance, and foster civic education among all Egyptians, including support for:
    • civic education and public awareness programs that reflect the multi-confessional nature of Egyptian society and the diversity of Egypt's religious past;
    • efforts by Egyptian and international NGOs to review Egyptian educational curricula and textbooks for messages of hatred, intolerance, and the advocacy of violence, and to monitor equal access to education by girls and boys regardless of religion or belief; and
    • preservation of Egyptian Jewish properties and antiquities in a publicly accessible site, such as in a museum, so that all Egyptians can better understand past and present Jewish contributions to their history and culture; and
  • as mandated by section 104 of IRFA, train Foreign Service Officers at Embassy Cairo about universal human rights, especially the right to freedom of religion or belief, the history, experiences, and contributions of different religions to Egyptian history, and ways to identify and respond to discriminatory and other abridgements of the rights of persons belonging to these communities.

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 in this chapter, as well as on the progress of the U.S. government on offering funding directly to Egyptian NGOs without prior Egyptian government approval.

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