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Reports on Religious Freedom:
Egypt

(2001)


Return to Religious Freedom Reports: Table of Contents


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The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; however, the Government places restrictions on this right. Under the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion and the primary source of legislation. Accordingly religious practices that conflict with Islamic law (Shari'a) are prohibited. However, in the country the practice of Christianity or Judaism does not conflict with Shari'a and, for the most part, members of the non-Muslim minority worship without harassment and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries.

There was a trend toward improvement in the Government's respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Public schools began using curricular materials on Coptic history, the Government implemented policies facilitating church repairs, and seven Christians became deputies in the People's Assembly (3 were elected and four were appointed by the President). There was continued press and public discussion of intercommunal relations and religious discrimination. Nevertheless there were some Government abuses and restrictions on the right to religious freedom. In January 2001, security authorities arrested 18 citizens, most of them Baha'is, on suspicion of "insulting religion;" 10 remained in detention without charge at the end of the period covered by this report. During the period covered by this report, several intellectuals faced trial or charges related to writings or statements on the subject of religion. Government discrimination against non-Muslims persisted.

Religious discrimination in society is a problem about which many citizens agree more needs to be done; however, many argue that development of the economy, polity, and society is the most effective and enduring way to abolish prejudice. In February 2001, a criminal court acquitted 92 of 96 defendants suspected of crimes committed while participating in violence in the village of Al-Kush in January 2000 that resulted in the deaths of 20 Christians and 1 Muslim. In September 2000, a criminal court convicted 20 persons and acquitted 19 of crimes including assault and arson committed in the neighboring village of Dar Al-Salaam. By the end of the period covered by this report, the Court of Cassation was considering whether to order a retrial of the 92 suspects who had been acquitted of participation in the violence in Al-Kush.

The subject of religious freedom remains an important and active part of the bilateral dialog between the U.S. and Egyptian Governments. Senior Administration officials, the U.S. Ambassador, and members of Congress have raised U.S. concerns about religious discrimination with President Hosni Mubarak and other senior government officials. In March 2001, members of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom visited the country and discussed religious freedom issues with a variety of Egyptian Government and non-governmental representatives.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 370,308 miles, and its population is between 66 and 67 million. Most citizens, approximately 90 percent, are Sunni Muslims. There is a small number of Shi'a Muslims who constitute less than 1 percent of the population. Approximately 8 to 10 percent of the population are Christians, the majority of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Other Christian communities include the Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Maronite, Roman, and Syrian Catholic Churches. An evangelical Protestant church, first established in the middle of the 19th century, has grown to a community of 17 Protestant denominations. There also are followers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which was granted legal status in the 1960's. The non-Muslim, non-Coptic communities range in size from several thousand to hundreds of thousands. The number of Baha'is has been estimated at between several hundred and a few thousand. The Jewish community numbers fewer than 200 persons. There are very few atheists.

Christians are geographically dispersed throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians tends to be higher in upper (southern) Egypt and some sections of Cairo and Alexandria.

There are many foreign missionary groups that work within the country, especially Roman Catholics and Protestants who have had a presence in the country for 100 years or more, although their mission involves education more than proselytizing. The Government generally tolerates missionary groups if they do not proselyte actively.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; however, the Government places restrictions on this right. Under the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion and the primary source of legislation. Accordingly religious practices that conflict with Shari'a are prohibited; however, in the country the practice of Christianity or Judaism does not conflict with Shari'a and, in general, members of the non-Muslim minority worship without harassment and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries.

The Constitution requires schools to offer religious instruction. Public and private schools provide religious instruction according to the faith of the student.

The religious establishment of Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf engage in interfaith discussions both domestically and abroad. First Lady Suzanne Mubarak has supported the development of reading and other curricular materials that advocate tolerance, which are distributed under her patronage by literacy projects aimed at girls.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

All mosques must be licensed, and the Government is engaged in an effort to control them legally. The Government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in mosques and monitors their sermons. In December 2000, the Minister of Awqaf announced that of the more than 70,000 mosques in the country, the Government controls 52,000 mosques and 11,000 mosques located in private buildings. In an effort to combat extremists, the Government has announced its intention to bring all nongovernment mosques under its control by 2002.

An 1856 Ottoman decree still in force requires non-Muslims to obtain a presidential decree to build a place of worship. In addition Interior Ministry regulations issued in 1934 specify a set of 10 conditions that the Government must consider prior to issuance of a presidential decree permitting construction of a church. These conditions include the location of the proposed site, the religious composition of the surrounding community, and the proximity of other churches. The Ottoman decree also requires the President to approve permits for the repair of church facilities.

In December 1999, in response to strong criticism of the Ottoman decree, President Mubarak issued a decree making the repair of all places of worship subject to a 1976 civil construction code. The decree is significant symbolically because it places churches and mosques on equal footing before the law. The practical impact of the decree has been to facilitate significantly church repairs; however, Christians report that local permits still are subject to security authorities' approval. During the period covered by this report, the President approved a total of 38 permits for church-related construction, including 3 permits for the construction of new churches; 5 permits for demolition and reconstruction of churches; 21 permits for churches previously constructed without authorization, 7 permits for construction of additional church facilities; and 2 permits for comprehensive renovation. The Government reported that governors issued more than 350 permits for church-related repair in 2000, an increase of 150 over those issued in 1999.

However, the approval process for church construction continued to be time consuming and insufficiently responsive to the wishes of the Christian community. Although President Mubarak reportedly has approved all requests for permits presented to him, Christians maintain that the Interior Ministry delays--in some instances indefinitely--submission to the President of their requests. They also maintain that security forces have blocked them from utilizing permits that have been issued, and that local security officials at times blocked or delayed permits for repairs to church buildings. For example, a permit issued in 1993 to repair structural damage to a 110-year-old church in a village next to Luxor remains unenforced due to "security reasons." During the summer of 2000, newspapers published a May 22 letter from the secretary general of Assiyut governorate to the head of the Assiyut counsel directing that all church repair requests be screened by security before being approved. However, in two cases during the period covered by this report, President Mubarak took corrective action to overturn decisions by local authorities. In February 2001, the governor of Qalyubia ordered the demolition of a church building, and in March 2001, he ordered a halt to construction of another church building. On both occasions, President Mubarak intervened by revoking the orders and ordering the reconstruction of the demolished building at the Government's expense.

As a result of these restrictions, some communities use private buildings and apartments for religious services. In March 2001, the Government donated a plot of land to the Christian community to build a church in the city of Al-Tour in the Sinai. The authorities had closed the community's previous church in February 2000 for lack of a permit. During the period covered by this report, a new large Christian church was constructed in the neighborhood of Al-Qalag in the city of Shebin Al-Qanater in Qalubiya governorate; security forces had closed the Christian community's historic church in that area in 1989.

In January 1996, human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the Ottoman decree's 10 conditions governing the building of places of worship for non-Muslims. In December 1998, an administrative court referred Naklah's case to the State Commissioner's Office, which in September 2000, recommended rejecting the suit on the grounds that Naklah had no standing to file suit. In October 2000, upon receiving a rebuttal from Naklah, the court returned the case to the State Commissioner's Office, and requested an opinion on the constitutionality of the 10 conditions. The State Commissioner's Office had not issued an opinion on this matter by the end of the period covered by this report.

In 1960 President Gamal Abdel Nasser issued a decree (Law 263 for 1960) banning Baha'i institutions and community activities. All Baha'i community properties, including Baha'i centers, libraries, and cemeteries, were confiscated. This ban has not been rescinded.

Political parties based on religion are illegal. Pursuant to this law, the Muslim Brotherhood is an illegal organization. Muslim Brothers speak openly and publicly about their views, although they do not explicitly identify themselves as members of the organization, and they remain subject to government pressure. Seventeen independent candidates backed by the Muslim Brotherhood were elected to the People's Assembly in the November 2000 parliamentary elections.

During the year, several authors faced trial or charges related to writings or statements considered heretical. In May 2001, a lawyer sued feminist Nawal Al-Saadawi for allegedly insulting Islam in comments she made during a magazine interview, and claimed that Al-Saadawi was an apostate and should be forcibly divorced from her Muslim husband. In June 2001, the Public Prosecutor rejected the complaints. The lawyer also filed an apostasy suit against Al-Saadawi in the Cairo Personal Status Court, which postponed a decision on the matter until July 2001.

Various ministries legally are authorized to ban or confiscate books and other works of art upon obtaining a court order. The Islamic Research Center at Al-Azhar University has legal authority to censor, but not to confiscate, all publications dealing with the Koran and Islamic scriptural texts. In recent years, the Center has passed judgment on the suitability of nonreligious books and artistic productions. For example, the Islamic Research Center at Al-Azhar University ruled in 1999 in favor of distribution of the book "My Father Adam: The Story of the Creation Between Legend and Reality," written by Abdel Sabour Shahine. An Islamist lawyer sued the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and several other senior Islamic figures in an effort to block publication of the book; the Court of First Instance rejected the suit in November 2000 and the plaintiff appealed the decision the same month. The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff's appeal on June 18, 2001.

In 1995 an administrative court ruled that the sole authority to prohibit publication or distribution of books and other works of art is vested in the Ministry of Culture. This decision invalidated a 1994 advisory opinion by a judiciary council that had expanded Al-Azhar's censorship authority to include visual and audio artistic works. The same year, President Mubarak stated that the Government would not allow confiscation of books from the market without a court order, a position supported by the then-Mufti of the Republic, who is now the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

In 1997 human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed suit seeking removal of the religious affiliation category from government identification cards. Naklah challenged the constitutionality of a 1994 decree by the Minister of Interior governing the issuance of new identification cards. In March 1998, the court referred the case to the State Commissioner's Office, which had not issued an opinion by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Constitution provides for equal public rights and duties without discrimination due to religion or creed, and in general, the Government upholds these constitutional protections; however, government discrimination against non-Muslims exists. There are no Christians serving as governors, presidents of public universities, or deans. There are few Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces. Although there was improvement in a few areas, government discriminatory practices include: Suspected statistical underrepresentation of the size of the Christian population; failure to admit Christians into public university training programs for Arabic language teachers (because the curriculum involves the study of the Koran); discrimination against Christians in the public sector; discrimination against Christians in staff appointments to public universities; and payment of Muslim imams through public funds (Christian clergy are paid by private church funds).

Anti-Semitism is found in the Government press and increased in late 2000 and 2001 following the outbreak of violence in the Israel and Occupied Territories (see Section III). In April 2001, columnist Ahmed Ragheb lamented Hitler's failure to finish the job of annihilating the Jews. In May 2001, an article in Al-Akhbar attacked Europeans and Americans for believing in the false Holocaust. The Government has advised journalists and cartoonists to avoid anti-Semitism.

In May 2001, the Administrative Court of the State Council (which hears disputes between the Government and citizens) overturned an August 2000 decision by the Ministry of Social Affairs barring human rights activist Mamdouh Nakhlah from membership on the board of the Youssef Al-Ramy Organization, a Christian charitable association operating in Cairo. The court rejected as inadequate the "security reasons" cited by the Ministry for barring Nakhlah's membership.

In 1996 upon agreement with Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda, the Minister of Awqaf, Hamdy Zaqzouq, established a joint committee to address a dispute with the Coptic Orthodox Church that originated in 1952. At that time, the Government seized approximately 1,500 acres of agricultural land from the Church and transferred title to the Ministry of Awqaf, which is responsible for administering religious trusts. Based on the committee's recommendations, more than 800 acres have been returned to the Church during the last few years. The committee continued to review claims to the remaining disputed property. In August 2000, the Coptic Orthodox Church won a lawsuit to reclaim several plots of land in greater Cairo that had been seized by private or Government institutions before 1952.

According to a 1995 law, the application of family law, including marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody, inheritance, and burial, is based on an individual's religion. In the practice of family law, the State recognizes only the three "heavenly religions:" Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Muslim families are subject to the Personal Status Law, which draws on Shari'a (Islamic law). Christian families are subject to canon law, and Jewish families are subject to Jewish law. In cases of family law disputes involving a marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, the courts apply the Personal Status Law.

Under Islamic law, non-Muslim males must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, but non-Muslim women need not convert to marry Muslim men. Muslim women are prohibited from marrying Christian men. Muslim female heirs receive half the amount of a male heir's inheritance, while Christian widows of Muslims have no inheritance rights. A sole female heir receives half her parents' estate; the balance goes to designated male relatives. A sole male heir inherits all his parents' property. Male Muslim heirs face strong social pressure to provide for all family members who require assistance; however, this assistance is not always provided. In January 2000, the Parliament passed a new Personal Status Law that made it easier for a Muslim woman to obtain a divorce without her husband's consent, provided that she is willing to forego alimony and the return of her dowry. However, an earlier provision of the draft law that would have made it easier for a woman to travel without her husband's consent, was rejected.

The Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates women members who marry Muslim men, and requires that other Christians convert to Coptic Orthodoxy in order to marry a member of the church. The Coptic Orthodox Church does not permit divorce.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government occasionally prosecutes members of religious groups whose practices deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs, and whose activities are believed to jeopardize communal harmony. For example, in January 2001, the Government arrested 18 persons in the southern Egyptian city of Sohag--most were Baha'is and some where Muslims--on suspicion of violating Article 98(F) of the Penal Code ("insulting a heavenly religion") and other possible charges. By the end of the period covered by this report, 10 Baha'is remained in detention without being formally charged.

In June 2001, the Public Prosecutor referred to a State Security Court a group of 52 men arrested in Cairo in May 2001 on suspicion of homosexual activity and unorthodox religious practices. Two of the defendants, who allegedly advocated a belief system combining Islam and tolerance for homosexuality, were charged with "insulting Islam," a violation of Article 98(F) of the Penal Code. Their trial was pending at the end of the period covered by this report. The remaining 50 detainees faced charges unrelated to religious beliefs or practices.

In October 2000, the Government released without charge 48 persons who had been arrested in March 2000 on suspicion of membership in a religious group established in 1969 by Salim Al-Faramawy; the group advocates the belief that members should isolate themselves from the State and society and abjure the use of science and technology, including medicine. Faramawy also advocated the consumption of dogs and cats, a practice prohibited by Islam. After Faramawy's death in 1991, his son-in-law, Mohamed Gouda, reportedly assumed leadership of the group.

On November 11, 1999, the State Security Prosecutor arrested 50 persons in Cairo suspected of heresy against Islam. On November 15, 1999, 30 of the detainees were released and the remaining 20 were charged with degrading Islam, inciting strife, and meeting illegally. The lead defendant, a woman named Manal Wahid Mana'a, who claimed that the Prophet Mohammed spoke to her, was accused of attempting to establish a new Islamic offshoot. On September 5, 2000, a State Security Emergency Court in Boulaq sentenced Mana'a to 5 years' hard labor, 3 other defendants to 3 years' hard labor, 7 to 1 year of hard labor, 2 to 6 months in prison, and 2 to a fine of $375 (1000 Egyptian pounds). One of the defendants died in prison, reportedly from ill health, during the investigation.

On January 27, 2001, a State Security Court sentenced Salaheddin Mohsen to 3 years in prison for "insulting Islam" through his writings. Mohsen originally had received a 6-month suspended sentence in a trial that ended in June 2000, but the Public Prosecutor appealed the sentence on the grounds that the sentence was too lenient and the Government ordered a retrial.

In June 2001, the Public Prosecutor ordered the release, pending an appeal, of author Ala'a Hamed, who had been convicted of insulting Islam in a novel in 1998; his appeal was pending at the end of the period covered by the report.

On July 16, 2000, the Dar Al-Salaam court sentenced a Christian, Suryal Gayed Ishak, to 3 years' hard labor for "insulting Islam" during a public dispute with a Muslim in 1999. Ishak's attorney appealed the conviction, claiming that Ishak was accused falsely. The Public Prosecutor appealed the sentence. On March 27, 2001, Suryal's sentence was reduced to 1 year and Suryal (who had been incarcerated for more than a year) was released.

Cairo University professor Nasr Abu Zeid and his wife continue to live abroad following the 1996 Court of Cassation ruling that affirmed lower court judgments that Abu Zeid is an apostate because of his controversial interpretation of Koranic teachings. In August 2000, the Supreme Constitutional Court rejected Abu Zeid's contestation of the constitutionality of the 1996 ruling.

In August 1999, the public prosecutor reopened and expanded an investigation of police torture of mostly Christian detainees that took place during the police investigation in August and September 1998 of the murder of Samir Aweda Hakim and Karam Tamer Arsal in the largely Coptic village of Al-Kush in Sohag governorate. However, during the period covered by this report, the investigation reportedly made little progress. It is unclear whether religion was a factor in the 1998 actions of the police officers. Some human rights groups outside Egypt believe that religion was a factor in the Al-Kush murder investigation, but most human rights and Christian activists in the country do not. Police abuse of detainees is a widespread practice that occurs regardless of a detainee's religious beliefs.

On June 5, 2000, a criminal court in Sohag city convicted Shayboub William Arsal of the 1998 murder of Hakim and Arsal. The court sentenced Shayboub to 15 years hard labor. An appeal was pending at the end of the period covered by this report. The Christian community of Al-Kush believes that Shayboub, a Christian resident of Al-Kush, was accused and convicted of the crime because of his religion. The public prosecution in Sohag has taken no action on charges of witness tampering in Shayboub's trial that were raised in 1998 against Bishop Wisa and Arch-Priest Antonious.

Neither the Constitution nor the Civil and Penal Codes prohibit proselytizing. While no such incidents involving Christians were reported during the period covered by this report, in past years several dozen Christians who were accused of proselytizing were harassed by police or arrested on charges of violating Article 98(F) of the Penal Code, which prohibits citizens from ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife. In May 2001, authorities arrested five members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church while they were distributing leaflets to Christian families. The authorities claimed that the leaflets included criticism of the Catholic Church, which might incite strife among Christians. The five Adventists were released after pledging not to distribute such materials in the future.

While there are no legal restrictions on the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, in past years police harassed Christians who had converted from Islam; however, there were no such reports during the period covered by this report. In cases involving conversion from Islam to Christianity, authorities in the past also have charged several converts with violating laws prohibiting the falsification of documents. In such instances, converts, who fear government harassment if they officially register the change from Islam to Christianity, have altered their identification cards and other official documents themselves to reflect their new religious affiliation. However, there were no reports of such charges during the period covered by this report. In August 2000, the Government lifted travel restrictions on two converts to Christianity who were imprisoned in 1991 and later released; the two subsequently were able to travel to other countries without harassment.

An estimated several thousand persons are imprisoned because of alleged support for or membership in Islamist groups seeking to overthrow the Government. The Government states that these persons are in detention because of membership in or activities on behalf of violent extremist groups, without regard to their religious affiliation. During the period covered by this report, security forces arrested large numbers of persons allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Most observers believe that the Government was seeking to undermine Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates in the elections to the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, and professional syndicates.

In past years, Coptic Christians have been the objects of occasional violent assaults by the Islamic Group and other terrorists. Some Christians have alleged that the Government is lax in protecting Christian lives and property. However, there were no reports of terrorist attacks against Christians during the period covered by this report.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were reports of forced conversions of Coptic girls to Islam by Muslim men. Reports of such cases are disputed and often include inflammatory allegations and categorical denials of kidnapping and rape. Observers, including human rights groups, find it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, as most cases involve a Coptic girl who converts to Islam when she marries a Muslim boy. According to the Government, in such cases the girl must meet with her family, with her priest, and with the head of her church before she is allowed to convert. There were no reports of forced religious conversion carried out by the Government. However, there are credible reports of Government harassment of Christian families that attempt to regain custody of their daughters, and of the failure of the authorities to uphold the law (which states that a marriage of a girl under the age of 16 is prohibited, and between the ages of 16 and 21 is illegal, without the approval and presence of her guardian) in cases of marriage between an underage Christian girl and a Muslim boy.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, the Government took several steps to promote and improve religious freedom and tolerance. For example, government primary, middle, and secondary schools began using a new history curriculum incorporating the Coptic and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history. The curriculum was developed over several years with the advice and support of Christian intellectuals and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

President Mubarak's December 1999 decree making the repair of all places of worship subject to a 1976 civil construction code continued to facilitate church repairs. In two instances during the period covered by this report, President Mubarak intervened to reverse orders to demolish buildings belonging to Christians churches, in one of the cases ordering that a building be rebuilt at the government's expense.

In November 2000, three Christians were elected to the People's Assembly (the first to be elected to parliament in 10 years), and President Mubarak appointed an additional four Christians to the People's Assembly.

In contrast to previous years, there were no reports during the period covered by this report that converts to Christianity were subjected to harassment by the security services. Hassan Mohamed Ismail Mohamed, one of four converts previously prevented from traveling, was able to travel abroad in August 2000.

In May 2001, President Mubarak inaugurated a complex, run by the Ministry of Tourism, to support religious tourism in Old Cairo, a district that includes Christian, Jewish, and Muslim holy places. The Ministry of Housing and the organization American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Athra Kadisha are expected to complete construction of a highway-bridge through the ancient Basatin Jewish Cemetery in Cairo in October 2001. The project is designed to be a modern highway--part of Cairo's Ring Road--that traverses a cemetery but respects Jewish religious strictures against moving or disturbing burial sites.

In September 2000, the Government extended official recognition to the Maadi Community Church, an independent interdenominational church, thereby allowing the church to buy property and hold services.

In May 2001, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny declared the burial place of Rabbi Ya'coub Abu Hasira an official antiquity site protected by the Government.

Building on actions first taken in late 1999, government-owned television and radio continued to expand the amount of programming time devoted to Christian issues, including live broadcast of Christmas and Easter services and documentaries on the country's monasteries and other aspects of Christian history. In August 2000, a version of Sesame Street especially designed for the country by the Children's Television Workshop with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began broadcasting. Among the aims of the program is the promotion of tolerance, and one of the principal characters is a Christian. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in December 2000, the most popular miniseries on government television was a drama explicitly addressing issues related to Muslim-Christian relations in the country; the drama provoked widespread public debate in print and broadcast media. There were no discriminatory programs in the broadcast media. Government and independent newspapers published a broad spectrum of news and views on religious topics, including respectful debates between Christian and Muslim clerics.

The Minister of Education has developed and distributed curricular materials instructing teachers in government schools to discuss and promote tolerance in teaching.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Muslims and Christians share a common history and national identity. They also share the same ethnicity, race, culture, and language. Christians are geographically dispersed throughout the country, and Christians and Muslims live as neighbors. At times religious tensions flare up, and individual acts of prejudice occur. Members of both faiths practice discrimination. The majority of citizens agree that more needs to be done to eliminate discrimination, but argue that development of the economy, polity, and society is the most effective and enduring way to abolish social prejudice.

On July 26, 2000, gunmen killed Christian farmer Magdy Ayyad Mus'ad and wounded five other persons in Giza province, allegedly because of objections to a church Mus'ad built. Authorities charged a person with the killing but released the suspect on bail in October 2000; by the end of the period covered by this report, no trial date had been set. On December 11, 2000, Father Hezkiyal Ghebriyal, a 75-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest, was stabbed and seriously wounded in the village of Bardis, near Sohag. Police arrested the suspected attacker. At the end of the period covered by this report the suspect remained in prison pending an ongoing investigation. Several other Christians were wounded in sectarian disputes in other provinces, including 4 in Fayoum in August 2000, 3 in Minya in October 2000, and 8 in Alexandria in December 2000. The authorities arrested Muslims and Christian suspects in several of these incidents, but all had been released by the end of the period covered by this report. The case of Ahmad and Ibrahim Nasir, who were sentenced to 7 years in prison for the September 1999 murder of a monk in Assiut, remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report. The Court of Cassation had not yet set a date to hear an appeal by the Public Prosecutor seeking a heavier sentence.

A trade dispute between a Christian clothing merchant and a Muslim customer that occurred on December 31, 1999, in the village of Al-Kush in Sohag governorate, escalated into violent exchanges between Muslims and Christians in the area, and resulted in the death of 21 Christians and 1 Muslim by January 2, 2000. The violence also resulted in the injuries to 39 persons in Al-Kush and 5 persons in the neighboring municipality of Dar Al-Salaam. Approximately 200 businesses and homes in the area were damaged.

On September 5, 2000, the Sohag Criminal Court convicted 20 defendants of the crimes committed in Dar Al-Salaam, including assault, arson, and vandalism (there were no deaths in Dar Al-Salaam) and acquitted 19 others. Four were convicted in absentia to 10 years in prison but were retried and acquitted upon turning themselves in to authorities. Four were sentenced to 2 years in prison, 11 to 1 year, and 1 to 6 months; the sentences were criticized as too lenient by the Christian community. Ninety-six persons (58 Muslims and 38 Christians) were accused of crimes committed in Al-Kush, including 43 charged with murder or attempted murder. On December 7, 2000, the Sohag court released all 89 defendants in custody (7 remained at large) on personal recognizance, reportedly to allow them to spend Muslim and Christian holidays with their families. On February 5, 2001, the court handed down the verdicts, acquitting 92 of the 96 defendants for the crimes committed in Al-Kush. One defendant was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 3 defendants were convicted of arson and sentenced to 1 year in prison. The lead judge justified the verdicts, citing inadequate evidence. On February 22, the Public Prosecutor contested the verdicts and called for a retrial before a different circuit. The Court of Cassation set a hearing date of May 21, 2001 to look into the case, postponing the verdict until July 30, 2001. The Christian community, including Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda, protested the initial verdicts in the Al-Kush case and expressed relief at the Public Prosecutor's contestation.

While there is no legal requirement for a Christian girl or woman to convert to Islam in order to marry a Muslim (see Section II), conversion to Islam is sometimes used to circumvent the legal prohibition on marriage between the ages of 16 and 21 without the approval and presence of the girl's guardian. Most Christian families would object to a daughter's wish to marry a Muslim; if a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is excommunicated by the Church. According to the Government, a Christian family whose minor daughter converts to Islam retains guardianship over her, but in practice local authorities sometimes allow transfer to a Muslim custodian, who is likely to grant approval for an underage marriage. The law is silent on the matter of the acceptable age of conversion. Ignorance of the law and social pressure, including the centrality of marriage to a woman's identity, often affect a girl's decision to convert (see Section II). Family conflict and financial pressure also are cited as factors.

Official relations between Christian and Muslim religious figures are amicable, and include reciprocal visits to religious celebrations. In 1998 a committee on dialog was established in 1998 by the Vatican and Al-Azhar, the country's foremost Islamic institution and a preeminent seminary of Sunni Islamic study. Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf engage in other interfaith discussions, both within the country and in other countries. The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) supports the Forum for Intercultural Dialog. In February 2001, the Forum and the Ministry of Awqaf began a year-long program to reach common positions on a number of issues of national importance. In May 2001, in collaboration with Alexandria University, the Forum held a 3-day conference entitled "The Role of the Library of Alexandria in Supporting a Culture of Dialogue and Tolerance." Dozens of prominent intellectuals, Muslim and Christian clerics, and journalists participated in the conference. Other informal interfaith discussions took place as well. For example, on June 28, 2001, Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Awqaf, and CEOSS held a conference at the Red Sea resort of Ain Sukhna; the conference emphasized themes of religious tolerance and unity in Egypt. Private Christian schools admit Muslim students, and religious charities serve both communities.

Anti-Semitism is found in both the government press and in the nonofficial press of the opposition parties, and increased in late 2000 and throughout 2001 following the outbreak of violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories (see Section II). However, there were no anti-Semitic incidents during the period covered by this report directed at the tiny Jewish community.

On June 17, 2001, the Al-Naba' newspaper published an article involving alleged sexual misconduct in a Coptic Orthodox monastery. The article provoked unusual demonstrations by Coptic Christians in Cairo from June 17 to 20, during which demonstrators criticized both the Government and the church leadership for treatment of a number of issues, including discrimination against Christians and the Al-Kush trial. On June 20, a demonstration at the Coptic Orthodox Church headquarters turned violent, and several demonstrators and police officers were hospitalized with minor injuries. Police detained 22 demonstrators on suspicion of illegal public assembly and damaging public property; by the end of the period covered by this report, 19 demonstrators had been released on bail awaiting trial and 3 remained in detention. All 22 of the demonstrators are charged with illegal assembly and damaging public property. On July 3, 2001, the remaining 3 demonstrators were released on bail. No information on the demonstrators' trial date was available by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Government reacted strongly to the story in Al-Naba'. The Coptic Orthodox Church promptly announced that the monk in question had been defrocked 5 years earlier and that it would sue Mamdouh Mahran, the publisher of al-Naba'. The Public Prosecutor referred Mahran to a State Security Court for trial on charges of undermining public order and social peace and spreading misinformation; the trial began June 24, 2001. The Speaker of the Shura Council also referred to the State Council Administrative Court a request to withdraw publishing licenses from Al-Naba' and its sister publication Akher Khabar. The case was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The subject of religious freedom is an important part of the bilateral dialog. The subject has been raised at all levels of government, including by the President, Secretary of State, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, the U.S. Ambassador, and other embassy officials. The Embassy maintains formal contacts with the Office of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition the Ambassador has discussed religious freedom with senior government officials and religious leaders. The Embassy also discusses religious freedom issues regularly in contacts with other government officials, including governors and Members of Parliament. Visiting congressional delegations have raised religious freedom issues during visits with government officials.

In January 2001, the Director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with government officials and community activists. In March 2001, members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, including the Chairman and Vice Chairman, visited the country. Although some citizens and organizations boycotted the visit on the grounds that the Commissioners were interfering in the country's internal affairs, the commissioners met with a broad range of government ministers and other officials, Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, other Christian and Muslim clerics, and many private citizens concerned with religious freedom. The Commissioners and embassy staff also met with some imprisoned Baha'is (see Section II).

The U.S. Embassy maintains an active dialog with the leaders of the Christian and Muslim religious communities, human rights groups, and other activists. The Embassy investigates every complaint of religious discrimination brought to its attention. During a public speech in March 2001, the former U.S. Ambassador criticized anti-Semitism in the media. The Embassy also discusses religious freedom with a range of contacts, including academics, businessmen, and citizens outside of the capital area.

The U.S. Mission, including the Department of State and USAID, works to expand human rights and to ameliorate the conditions that contribute to religious strife by promoting economic, social, and political development. U.S. programs and activities support initiatives in several areas directly related to religious freedom.

The Mission is working to strengthen civil society, including training for nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) that promote religious tolerance. In April 2000, the Nongovernmental Organization Service Center was funded by USAID to provide training, technical assistance, and grants to domestic NGO's. By the end of the period covered by this report, the Center had given over $1 million in grants to 52 NGO's and had provided training for over 1,400 NGO representatives. The Embassy has nominated participants interested in advocacy for the State Department's International Visitor Program, and invited American specialists in this subject to speak in the country. In addition, USAID supports a major effort to improve the administration of justice, and State Department exchange activities promote legal reform and access to justice.

The U.S. Mission also promotes civic education. The public affairs section of the Embassy supports the development of materials that encourage tolerance, diversity, and understanding of others, in both Arabic-language and English-language curriculums. USAID, in collaboration with the Children's Television Workshop, developed an Egyptian version of the television program Sesame Street, which is designed to reach remote households and has as one of its goals the promotion of tolerance. The program began broadcasting in August 2000 and is estimated to reach one-third of school age children (see Section II). USAID also supports private voluntary organizations that are implementing innovative curriculums in private schools. The public affairs section of the Embassy is leading an effort to increase the professionalism of the press, with an emphasis on balanced and responsible coverage. Finally USAID is working with the Supreme Council of Antiquities to promote the conservation of cultural antiquities, including Islamic, Christian, and Jewish historical sites.


Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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