Reports on Religious Freedom: Egypt
Section I. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; however, the Government places clear restrictions on this right. Under the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion and primary source of legislation. Accordingly, religious practices that conflict with Islamic law are prohibited. However, for the most part, members of the non-Muslim minority worship without harassment and maintain links with coreligionists abroad.
The Government continued its efforts to extend legal controls to all mosques, which by law must be licensed. The Government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams officiating in mosques, and proposes themes for and monitors sermons. Of the country's approximately 70,000 mosques, nearly half remain unlicensed and operate outside the control of government authorities. In an effort to combat Islamic extremists, the Government has announced its intention to bring all unauthorized mosques under its control by 2000.
Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Approximately 10 percent of the population belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. There are other smaller Christian denominations, including the Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic Churches, the Coptic Catholic Church, and an evangelical Protestant community. These range in size from several thousand members to hundreds of thousands. The Jewish community currently numbers approximately 200 persons. There is a small number of Shi'a Muslims and Baha'is.
While neither the Constitution nor the Civil and Penal Codes prohibit proselytizing, Christians have been arrested on charges of violating Article 98f of the Penal Code, which prohibits citizens from ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife. There were no reports of such arrests during the period covered by this report.
There are no legal restrictions on the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. However, Muslims may face legal problems if they convert to another faith. During the past two decades, several dozen persons accused of proselytizing for Christianity, or who had converted from Islam to Christianity, have been arrested on charges of violating Article 98f of the Penal Code. During the period covered by this report, there were a few unconfirmed reports that converts to Christianity were subjected to harassment by the security services, including temporary detention.
In February 1998, the Government lifted travel restrictions that had been imposed on four former Muslims who had converted to Christianity and consequently been charged with violating Article 98f. Following their arrest in 1990, the men were detained for 10 months until President Hosni Mubarak ordered their release in 1991. However, at the time of their release the Government did not remove their names from an immigration "lookout list" that prohibits citizens involved in criminal proceedings from traveling abroad without government permission. The issue lay dormant until recently when the men began traveling. In two separate incidents, one in late December 1997 and the other in February 1998, two of the converts were arrested at the airport and briefly detained. Following these incidents, the Government removed the names of all four converts from the lookout list.
In other cases involving conversion from Islam to Christianity, authorities have charged 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 identity documents themselves to reflect their new religious affiliation. There were no confirmed reports of individuals detained or charged under these laws during the period covered by this report. In 1997 human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed suit seeking removal of the religious affiliation category from identification cards. The court referred the case to the State Commissioner's Office, which has not yet issued an opinion.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and other local human rights groups reported that in the course of an investigation in August and September 1998 into the murder of two Copts, the police detained hundreds of citizens, including relatives of suspects, women, and children, in the largely Coptic village of al-Kush in Sohag governorate. Local observers reported that dozens of these detainees were subjected to torture and mistreatment. All torture victims appear to have been Christian, but human rights activists note that Muslims were also detained and mistreated, if not tortured, during the investigation. There were credible reports that in the course of the investigation the police disparaged the faith of the Christian detainees. Police abuse of detainees is a general problem in Egypt regardless of the detainees' religious beliefs. It is still unclear whether religion was a factor in the individual officers' actions. Some advocacy groups believe that religion was a factor, but most human rights and Christian activists in Egypt do not.
In September 1998, 15 residents of al-Kush filed a complaint with the public prosecutor in Sohag citing unlawful detention, brutality, and torture by four police officers in al-Kush. In October 1998, the public prosecutor charged local clergymen Bishop Wisa and Arch-Priest Antonius with witness tampering after they publicly protested the police conduct. They were questioned and released after each paid bail. On December 1, 1998, a state security prosecutor charged the secretary general of the EOHR, Hafez Abu Se'da, with accepting foreign money and publishing false information with the intent to harm national interests. The charges were based on a report critical of the Sohag incident published by the EOHR on September 28, 1998. Abu Se'da was detained for 6 days and then released on bail. A state security prosecutor also levied the same charges against EOHR attorney Mustafa Zidane on December 9, 1998. Zidane is the author of the EOHR report on the Sohag incident. He was not detained but was required to pay bail. The charges raised against Bishop Wisa, Arch-Priest Antonius, Abu Se'da, and Zidane have not been dropped. In May 1999, the public prosecutor in Sohag announced that the medical evidence did not support the allegations of police torture and mistreatment of suspects during the Sohag incident, and dismissed the charges against the police officers. There was no evidence to substantiate a report that the Government compensated the four officers accused of torture and mistreatment of al-Kush residents, and the Minister of Interior denied the report. The officers were transferred during the investigation and have not been reassigned to al-Kush. There were no means of independently verifying the conclusions of the public prosecutor, and there remain some discrepancies between the official and unofficial versions of events. As of late June, there were indications that the Government was taking action to address these discrepancies.
An 1856 Ottoman decree still in force requires non-Muslims to obtain what is now 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 response to strong criticism of the decree, President Mubarak in January 1998 delegated to governors the authority to approve permits for the repair of church facilities. Despite this action, the approval process for church construction and repair remains time consuming and insufficiently responsive to the wishes of the Christian community. Although President Mubarak has approved all requests for permits presented to him (reportedly a total of more than 230 during his 18-year tenure), 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.
During the 1990's, the Government increased the number of building permits issued to Christian communities to an average of more than 20 per year, compared with an average of 5 permits issued annually in the 1980's. During the period covered by this report, the Government approved a total of 39 permits for church-related construction, including 3 permits for the construction of new churches; 10 permits for the construction of additional church facilities; and 26 permits for churches previously constructed without authorization. The Government reported that governors issued a total of 207 permits for church-related repair during 1998; this total represents a significant increase in approvals. However, the Government was unable to provide a breakdown by governorate. Unofficial reports from the governorates vary. In January 1996, human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the Ottoman decree. In December 1998, an administrative court referred Naklah's case to a state body of legal experts. This decision was considered a setback, as the body is not required to issue an opinion expeditiously and its opinions are not binding. As a result of these restrictions, some communities use private buildings and apartments for religious services. In June 1998, state security forces shut down a church in the Cairo suburb of Ma'adi. The building had been used for several years for worship by the Coptic Orthodox community, although the community never had received a response to its request for a permit. In mid-October 1998, the Government permitted the church to reopen.
In 1960 Baha'i institutions and community activities were banned by presidential decree and all community properties, including Baha'i centers, libraries, and cemeteries, were confiscated. The ban on Baha'i institutions has never been rescinded.
In most matters of family law, including marriage, divorce, alimony, and child custody, Christians are subject to canon law. In cases of family law disputes involving a marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, Shari'a (Islamic law) applies. The children of such marriages must be raised as Muslims. Muslim women are prohibited from marrying Christian men.
Government discriminatory practices include: Suspected statistical underrepresentation of the size of the Christian population; omission of the Coptic Era of Egyptian history in the school curriculum; and negligible media coverage of Christian subjects. There are no Copts serving as deans or university presidents, no Coptic governors, and no Copts in the upper ranks of the military or police.
There was a trend toward improvement in certain aspects of the respect and protection of the right to religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Besides increasing the approval rate for church repair, in January 1999, the Government formed a committee of academics to revise the history curriculum in the primary and secondary schools. A primary objective of the committee is to reintroduce into the curriculum the Coptic and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history. In a separate initiative, the Ministry of Education rescheduled exams to ensure that they did not conflict with Christian holidays. Government-owned television and radio devoted significantly more programming time to Christian issues and, for the first time in decades, offered a live broadcast of the Christmas and Easter celebrations. The media did not broadcast any discriminatory programs. Government newspapers provided more editorial space to Christian themes and authors than in past years. The Ministry of Culture sponsored several events devoted to Coptic issues, including a seminar on the nationalist role of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Ministry of Tourism supported development of sites that, according to tradition, were visited by the Holy Family during their sojourn in Egypt. The first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has endorsed the development of reading materials that advocate tolerance. These materials are distributed by projects under her patronage that promote literacy and educational opportunities for girls.
The Minister of Awqaf, Hamdy Zaqzouq, established in 1996 a 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 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 in the past 2½ years. The committee continues to review claims to the remaining disputed property. The Ministry of Awqaf engages in interfaith discussions both domestically and abroad.
In September 1998 in Cairo, and in May 1999 in the southern city of Assiyut, the Binational Fulbright Commission conducted workshops on empathy and tolerance.
There were no reports of religious prisoners. 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 religious affiliation. There were no reports linking their detention to religious belief.
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.
During the past two decades, the Islamic Group and other terrorist groups that seek the overthrow of the Government have committed violent assaults, including assaults against Christian targets. During 1998 extremists were responsible for targeting and killing eight Christian Egyptians in the governorate of Minya. There were no reported targeted killings of Christians by extremists during the first 6 months of 1999. Government, Islamic, and community leaders have criticized the attacks against Christians. The Government remains fully engaged in efforts to arrest and convict these extremists. However, some Christians allege that the Government is lax in protecting Christian lives and property (see Section II).
Section II. Societal Attitudes
The Coptic Orthodox Church was established in Alexandria in the 5th century. Although today there are numerous Christian denominations, the term "Copt" is used generically to distinguish Christians from Muslim Egyptians. Both Muslims and Copts 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. Discrimination is practiced by members of both faiths. 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.
During the past 2 decades, the Islamic Group and other terrorist groups that seek the overthrow of the Government have committed violent assaults, including assaults against Christian targets. Some Christians allege that the Government is lax in protecting Christian lives and property. During 1998, extremists were responsible for killing eight Christians in the Minya governorate, where about 30 to 40 percent of the inhabitants are Christian (see Section I).
The Constitution provides for equal public duties and rights without discrimination due to religion or creed. However, the Government discriminates on the basis of religion in some areas. Government discriminatory practices related to education and employment include: Failure to admit Christians into schools of Arabic studies to become Arabic teachers, as the curriculum involves study of the Koran; job discrimination in the public sector--the police, the armed forces, and other government agencies; and reported discrimination against Christians in staff appointments at universities.
There were reports of forced conversions of Coptic girls to Islam. Observers, including human rights groups, find it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, as these cases typically involve a Coptic girl who converts to Islam when she marries a Muslim boy. Reports of such cases are disputed and often include inflammatory allegations and categorical denials of kidnaping and rape. According to the Government, the girl in such cases must meet with her family, with her priest, and with the head of her church before she is allowed to convert. However, there are credible reports of the Government's failure to ensure that such meetings occur, of government harassment of Christian families that attempt to regain custody of their daughters prior to the marriage, and of the failure of the authorities to uphold the law that 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.
There is no legal requirement for a Christian girl or woman to convert to Islam in order to marry a Muslim. If a Coptic woman marries a Muslim man, she is excommunicated by the Church. Ignorance of the law and social pressure, including the centrality of marriage to a woman's identity, often affect her decision. Family conflict and financial pressure also are cited as factors. In addition, conversion is a means of circumventing 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. However, if a Christian girl converts to Islam, her family loses guardianship, which transfers to a Muslim custodian, who is likely to grant approval. In the past there have been reports that the authorities failed to uphold the law in dozens of cases of marriage of an underage Christian girl to a Muslim boy. The law is silent on the matter of the acceptable age of conversion.
Official relations between Christian and Muslim religious figures are amicable, and include reciprocal visits to religious celebrations. 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 engages in other interfaith discussions, both in the country and abroad. The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services supports a Center for Intercultural Dialog. Other informal interfaith discussions take place as well. Private Christian schools admit Muslim students, and religious charities serve both communities.
Rejecting foreign and some local negative characterizations of government treatment of Christians, local Christian and Muslim leaders formed in 1998 a Council of "Wise Men" to define the problems of the Christian community and propose solutions to the Government and society. The Council identified the following five priorities: Abolishing the Ottoman decree and related regulations governing the construction and repair of churches; increasing the number of Christians nominated for elected positions by the governing National Democratic Party; increasing the number of Christians appointed by the Government to positions in the military, security services, and universities; correcting the imbalance in media treatment of Christian subjects and prohibiting the inclusion of discriminatory materials; and correcting the deficiencies in the educational curriculums, including the insufficient treatment of the Coptic era of history. The Government has begun to address some of these concerns (see Section I).
Anti-Semitism in the press is found in both the government press and in the nonofficial press of the opposition parties. The Government has advised journalists and cartoonists to avoid anti-Semitism. There have been no anti-Semitic incidents in recent years directed at the tiny Jewish community.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The subject of religious freedom is an important part of the bilateral dialog. It has been raised at all levels, including by the U.S. 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 regularly discusses religious freedom issues in contacts with other government officials, including governors and Members of Parliament.
President Clinton raised the treatment of Egypt's Christian community with President Mubarak during Mubarak's visit to the United States in mid-1999. In February 1999, the Secretary of State's Special Representative for International Religious Freedom visited and met with official interlocutors and community activists. Other senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of Defense and the Under Secretary for Economics, Business, and Agricultural Affairs, have raised religious freedom during visits with government officials.
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. Embassy intervention resulted in the release from temporary detention of two Muslim converts to Christianity and the lifting of outdated travel restrictions on these men and two other colleagues. The Embassy also discusses religious freedom with a range of contacts, including academics, businessmen, and citizens outside of the capital area and those from a lower-income background.
The U.S. Mission, including the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Information Service (USIS), works in concert to expand human rights and to ameliorate the conditions that breed religious strife by promoting economic, social, and political development. U.S. programs and activities support initiatives in several areas directly related to religious freedom. One initiative is to strengthen civil society, including training for nongovernmental groups that promote religious tolerance. USAID is supporting the establishment of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) service center to provide training and technical assistance to NGO's. USIS supported participants interested in advocacy for the U.S. Information Agency's International Visitors Program, and invited American specialists as part of the Agency's speakers program. A second initiative is to strengthen the rule of law. USAID supports a major effort to improve the administration of justice, and USIS training and exchange activities promote legal reform and access to justice. A third initiative is the promotion of civic education. USIS is supporting the development of materials that encourage tolerance, diversity, and understanding of others, in both Arabic-language and English-language curriculums. USAID works with the Children's Television Workshop to develop an Egyptian version of the television program Sesame Street, which is designed to reach isolated households and to promote tolerance. USAID also supports private voluntary organizations that are implementing innovative curriculums in private schools. A fourth initiative, led by USIS, is the 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