Frosty Reception for US Religious Freedom Commission in Egypt

by Vickie Langohr | published March 29, 2001

What if you had a party and no one came? On March 22, members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—visiting Cairo on a fact-finding tour—waited in vain for members of Egyptian political parties and civil society groups to arrive at the commission's welcoming gala. The press variously put the Egyptian attendance at zero or two, with one of the two reported guests subsequently denying her presence. This was only the last in a series of snubs experienced by the commission, which met with President Hosni Mubarak, the head of the Coptic Church, and the Sheikh of al-Azhar but otherwise was almost universally boycotted by both Christians and Muslims. The USCIRF delegation, headed by former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, went to Egypt to investigate claims that Egyptian Copts are victims of persistent mistreatment ranging from discrimination in public life to religiously motivated attacks on their life and property. But the delegates got a frostier reception from Egyptian human rights activists—some of whom have encouraged forthright discussion of the Coptic question—than from the Egyptian government, which flatly denies the existence of discrimination.

Evangelical Origins

The USCIRF was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), ostensibly to advise the president, the State Department and Congress on religious freedom worldwide. Commission staff is on the US government payroll. President Bill Clinton, other Democrats and business interests opposed the original formulation of IRFA, which mandated imposition of economic sanctions on countries found by the US to persecute religious minorities. The compromise bill—whose overwhelming passage lent the USCIRF its current "bipartisan" patina—granted the president authority to waive sanctions that are "not in the national interest," effectively pulling the teeth out of the legislation. IRFA also established a parallel Office on International Religious Freedom inside the State Department, which issues annual reports identifying "countries of particular concern"—violators of religious freedom. The 1999 and 2000 reports named Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan in this category.

The impetus to make the US government a crusader for religious liberty came from the Christian right, and the USCIRF—despite its current multi-faith composition—still bears the imprint of its evangelical and partisan origins. During its first year, in addition to Sudan and China, the commission focused on Russia, where the government limits the activities of Mormon and other missionaries. In the waning years of the Clinton administration, the USCIRF skirmished repeatedly with the State Department over the latter's refusal to expand the list of "countries of particular concern" or enforce tougher sanctions against the countries so designated. Heavily backed by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and other deeply conservative Congressional Republicans, the USCIRF embarked on a public relations offensive last summer to accentuate its disagreements with the administration. Writing in the right-wing Washington Times on January 1, Abrams blasted the administration for not tightening "IRFA sanctions" on Sudan, China and Iran, and suggested that new IRFA measures target France. Commission member Nina Shea (who was not a member of the Cairo delegation) also works as director of the conservative Center for Religious Freedom, which focuses exclusively on Christian religious freedom. (The Center's website boasts that Newsweek credited Shea with making "Christian persecution Washington's hottest cause.") As George W. Bush is indebted to the religious right, the USCIRF hopes that phrasing concern for human rights as concern for religious freedom will find a more receptive audience than it did under Clinton.

Pressure on Mubarak

Since Hosni Mubarak will come to Washington on April 2, many Egyptian observers feel the timing of the USCIRF visit is not accidental. In July 1999, the occasion of Mubarak's last visit, the USCIRF, echoing the regular allegations of Coptic immigrant groups, issued a statement averring that Copts were "finding it increasingly difficult to practice [their] faith freely." Egyptian analysts assert that the US is seeking leverage over Mubarak during his trip, particularly with an eye to influencing Egypt's positions on the Palestinians and US-led sanctions on Iraq.

The USCIRF's presence in Cairo put the government, and the religious officialdom whose positions depend on it, between a rock and a hard place. The government's reception of the Commission was roundly attacked in the parliament—with the Coptic head of the opposition Wafd party's delegation leading the charge. But as Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US aid, totaling $2.1 billion in 1999, Mubarak could hardly refuse to see the commission. In an effort to obscure this point, the government repeatedly argued that the USCIRF is a private body unconnected to Congress. The Sheikh of al-Azhar, Sayyed Tantawi, Egypt's highest-ranking Muslim leader and a presidential appointee, also gave an interview to the commission, using his time to stress that Copts reject interference in their internal affairs and dissociate themselves from the claims made by Coptic emigres on their behalf. The position of Coptic officialdom has been kept purposely more vague. Pope Shenouda, the head of the Coptic Church in Egypt, met with the delegation but did not take a public stance on its activities. Sources close to him attacked the USCIRF for making Copts a political football.

Egypt's Coptic Question

Egypt's Christians, the overwhelming majority of whom are Copts, are variously estimated at between six and ten percent of the population. The Coptic issue has long been politically sensitive. The 1994 attempt of Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldun Center to include discussion of the Copts in a conference on minorities in the Arab world raised such a furor that the conference was relocated from Cairo to Cyprus, although subsequent annual conferences in Cairo have raised Coptic concerns. Ibrahim, currently on trial for unrelated charges, has alleged that his attention to Coptic concerns is a primary reason that he has been targeted by the government. He declined to meet with the USCIRF, saying that he feared jeopardizing his ongoing legal case.

Almost all Copts living in Egypt reject being classified as a "minority," but they do suffer from many of the disadvantages experienced by religious minority populations worldwide. While Muslim religious holidays are national holidays, Coptic holidays are not. Coverage of Coptic religious ceremonies on state-owned television, while it has increased over the past few years, remains rare compared to Islamic programming. Copts seeking to add on to existing churches or build new ones require special government permission. Ottoman-era regulations from the 1850s still restrict where churches can be located, forbidding church construction within a certain number of meters of existing mosques or graveyards, for instance. Copts are severely under-represented in politics. The exceptions—such as former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali, who had been minister of state for foreign affairs, and current minister of the economy Youssef Boutros Ghali—prove the rule. Only three Christians serve among the 444 elected politicians in the new parliament. Two of the three are wealthy entrepreneurs, and wealth may be the best chance for Coptic candidates to break into the upper echelons of political power.

More pernicious than political under-representation of Copts is the charge that they are singled out as victims in communal violence. The most recent such charge stems from two separate incidents in the southern Egyptian village of al-Kosheh, two-thirds of whose inhabitants are Copts. After two Copts were killed in al-Kosheh in August 1998, the police investigation rounded up over 1,000 Copts, many of whom were tortured. Hafez Abu Saada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), was imprisoned as the EOHR prepared to issue a report on the incident documenting police misconduct. A commercial dispute between a Muslim and a Christian in the same village in January 2000 escalated into a bloodbath in which 21 Christians and one Muslim were killed. Last month's court ruling that acquitted 92 of the 96 defendants in the case sparked much anger in Egypt and abroad.

"Religious Freedom" or Human Rights?

Some human rights activists argue that the al-Kosheh incidents are not cases of religious persecution per se, but manifestations of a larger problem in Egypt: a lack of respect for the rights of both Muslim and Christian citizens. Abu Saada turned down a December 1999 award from the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom for EOHR's coverage of al-Kosheh, saying that while the award was meant for those defending the case of religious freedom, EOHR did not see and had not reported al-Kosheh as a case of religious persecution. Similarly, some activists have explained the acquittal of almost all of the defendants in the second al-Kosheh case as a result of inadequate police work which could not connect specific defendants to particular crimes, leaving the judges with no option but to acquit. Such sloppy investigations, they contend, dog many attempts to bring abusers of human rights to justice. But many other human rights organizations see the issue differently, arguing that the pervasiveness of Islamist discourse advanced by Islamist groups and the government alike has led many Muslims to see Copts as second-class citizens, creating a climate in which they are victimized even more easily than their Muslim neighbors. They argue that police behavior in the al-Kosheh cases was unique in several ways, particularly in the widespread torture of women rounded up in the police investigation.

While different human rights groups disagree on the causes of al-Kosheh, they were almost unanimous in refusing to meet the USCIRF mission on the grounds that this body has no internationally recognized legal status and that the US is particularly unqualified to investigate ostensible violations of religious freedom. Five of Egypt's most prominent human rights groups explained their refusal to meet the committee in a statement which highlighted US "double standards in the matter of human rights," manifested by its "devoting attention to religious freedoms in the Middle East while supporting shameful violations of the rights of the Palestinian people." The statement called attention to US obstruction of the latest plea from the Palestinians for UN protection. (On March 28, the US did veto a UN Security Council resolution establishing a UN observer force in the Occupied Territories.) The groups also focused special attention on the dubious record of Abrams as assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, as well as his recent statements on Israel and the intifada. In articles Abrams posted on the website www.beliefnet.com, he criticized a US Protestant church delegation because it had condemned the Israeli response to the current uprising and supported the Palestinian right of return. These questions of credibility will haunt the USCIRF as it moves on to stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel-Palestine.

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