Reports on Religious Freedom: Egypt
The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; however, the Government places restrictions on this right. According to the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion and the primary source of legislation, and religious practices that conflict with Islamic law (Shari'a) are prohibited. However, 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 some improvement in the Government's respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, such as greater recognition and tolerance of Coptic Christians; however, the Government continued to fail to bring to justice those responsible for killing 21 Christians at Al-Kush, and converts from Islam face periodic detention and discrimination. There were some abuses and restrictions and the Government continued to prosecute for unorthodox religious beliefs and practices that "insult heavenly religions."
There continued to be religious discrimination and sectarian tension in society during the period covered by this report.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialogue and policy of promoting human rights. Senior Administration officials, the U.S. Ambassador, and members of Congress have continued to raise U.S. concerns about religious discrimination with President Hosni Mubarak and other senior government officials.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 370,308 square miles, and its population is approximately 69.2 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 Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Melkite, Roman, and Syrian Catholic), Maronite, and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) 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 1960s. The non-Muslim, non-Coptic Orthodox 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 declared 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, social, and development work more than proselytizing. The Government generally tolerates missionary groups if they do not proselytize actively.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; however, the Government places restrictions on this right. According to the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion and the primary source of legislation, and religious practices that conflict with Shari'a are prohibited. However, 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.
For a religious denomination to be officially recognized by the State, a request must be submitted to the Religious Affairs Department at the Ministry of Interior, which assesses whether the proposed religion would pose a threat or upset national unity or social peace. The department also consults the leading religious figures recognized in the country, particularly the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Sheik of Al-Azhar. The registration is then referred to the president, who issues a decree recognizing the new religion according to Law 15 of 1927. If a religious group chooses to bypass the official registration process, participants could be subject to detention and could also face prosecution under Article 98F of the Penal Code, which forbids the "ridiculing of a heavenly religion."
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 (Islamic Religious Endowments) 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 children and adults, such as a "Reading for All" festival held annually.
While the Government generally supports dialogue to promote religious tolerance, instances of intolerance, such as anti-Semitism, continue to appear in government-supported media. For example, in November and December 2002, Dream TV aired a historical drama entitled "Horseman without a Horse." While the Government had only a 10 percent ownership stake in the station, the Ministries of Information and Culture had vetted and approved the series. The 41-episode series contained numerous anti-Semitic depictions of Jewish characters and included some references to the spurious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Following several interventions by foreign diplomats, state-owned Egypt TV, one of many stations in the Middle East broadcasting the series, edited 77 minutes from the program and added a disclaimer, which noted that the historical authenticity of the protocols had never been established and that the series was the result of the author's imagination. Pro-government papers subsequently published a denunciation of the protocols by historian Abdel Wahab al-Messiry. In addition, in late December 2002, Presidential advisor Ossama El-Baz published a three-part series in the pro-government newspaper al-Ahram in which he explained the origins of and criticized the phenomenon of anti-Semitism.
The following religious holidays are designated national holidays: 'Eid Al-Fitr, 'Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic new year, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, and Christmas (January 7 on the Eastern calendar).
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
All mosques must be licensed, and the Government is engaged in an effort to control them legally in a proclaimed effort to combat extremists. The Government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in mosques and monitors their sermons. In June 2002, the Minister of Awqaf announced that of the more than 80,000 mosques in the country, the Government controls administratively 60,000 regular mosques and 15,000 mosques located in private buildings. The Minister said that the Government hoped to control all mosques by the end of 2003.
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 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 places churches and mosques on equal footing before the law and facilitates significantly church repairs. However, local permits are still subject to approval by security authorities. Christians maintained that, in some cases, permits can take years to obtain. Security officials also may deny or delay permits for the supply of water and electricity. The incidence of blocked or delayed permits varies, often depending on the nature of the church's relationship with local security officials and the approach of the governor. During the period covered by this report, (according to statistics published by the Government of Egypt's Official Gazette), President Mubarak approved a total of nine permits for church related construction, including two for the construction of new churches, two for the demolition and reconstruction of new churches, three for the construction of church facilities, one for an already-constructed church, and one for church repairs. In the previous period, the Government issued 23 permits.
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 using permits that have been issued, and that local security officials at times blocked, delayed or denied them permits for repairs to church buildings and/or the supply of water and electricity to existing church facilities.
In 2001 President Mubarak ordered the reconstruction at Government expense of two church buildings in Qalyubia that local authorities had demolished. However, as of July, local security officials continued to obstruct the construction of a staircase in one of the two buildings. Also in Qalyubia, security officials continued to deny requests for the supply of water and electricity to an 11-story building, part of which is used as a church. In the Cairo suburb of Ezbet el-Nakhl, church officials continue to await a presidential decree authorizing the demolition and reconstruction of a small church 16 years after the request was first made. In February the media reported that a priest in Assiyut who had filed a 2002 request to demolish and rebuild a home for the elderly was summoned by local security authorities and pressed to sign a statement pledging not to undertake the requested construction.
As a result of these restrictions, some communities use private buildings and apartments for religious services or build without permits. In April authorities permitted the re-opening of a building used as a church in Nag'a al-Qiman, Sohag province, after ordering its closure in 2002 and briefly detaining some members of the congregation. Although the church in the building operated without a government permit, it had been used as a place of worship since 1975.
In February the Government issued a permit for the construction of a church in the new community of al-'Obour (north of Cairo). The site had been the source of previous controversy when the mayor of al-'Obour ordered the demolition of a fence surrounding a plot of land designated for construction of the new church in December 2001. The local congregation had erected the fence without a permit and had begun holding prayer services on the site while they awaited a presidential decree. In addition the congregation of the Baptist church in Awlad Ilyas, near Assiyut, has used the churchyard for prayers because local police have prevented repairs to the structure.
In 1996 human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed suit challenging the constitutionality of a 1934 Minister of Interior decree, which was based on the 1856 Ottoman decree governing the building of places of worship for non-Muslims. In November 2002, the State Commissioners' Body issued a "final" advisory opinion, rejecting the suit on the grounds that the challenged decree was issued before the Commissioners' Body was established in 1946. Subsequently, in an April 15 hearing, a judge ruled that no further consideration of the suit was warranted. On June 27, the Administrative Court, which is part of the State Council, rejected the case on the grounds that the decree in question was issued in 1933, before the establishment of the State Council, which was established in 1947. The Administrative Court argued that it could not rule on a law predating its establishment. Nakhla plans to appeal before the Higher Administrative Court.
On September 28, 2002, Sayyed Tolba was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, Gamalat Soliman to 1 year in prison, and 19 others received suspended prison sentences for practicing beliefs deemed "deviant from Islamic Shari'a." In 2001 the State Emergency Court convicted 2 men on that charge (sentenced to 5 and 3 years in prison respectively); in March 2002, the Court convicted 8 persons (sentences ranged from 3 years in prison to suspended sentences); and in May 2002, a group of 21 persons were referred to trial in a State Security Emergency Court on the same charge; the trial was ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.
Law 263 for 1960 (decreed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser) bans Baha'i institutions and community activities. The Government confiscated all Baha'i community properties, including Baha'i centers, libraries, and cemeteries, and the 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 arbitrary treatment and pressure from the Government. Seventeen independent candidates backed by the Muslim Brotherhood were elected to the People's Assembly in the 2000 parliamentary elections, despite government-sponsored efforts to thwart them, which included mainly limiting access to polling stations but also, in some instances, violence, detentions and arrests.
There were no new cases of authors facing trial or charges related to writings or statements considered heretical during the period covered by this report. In July 2001, the Cairo Personal Status Court rejected a lawsuit against feminist author Nawal al-Sa'adawi, in which Islamist attorney Nabih al-Wahsh sought to force the divorce of al-Sa'adawi from her husband on the grounds of apostasy due to views she expressed regarding Muslim customs and beliefs.
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 previous years, the Center has passed judgment on the suitability of nonreligious books and artistic productions, but there were no new cases during the period covered by this report.
The local media, including pro-government papers and state TV, gives prominence to Islamic programming, which sometimes implies the primacy of Islam among "the heavenly religions." For example, a program entitled "Essence of Life," which airs twice a week on state-owned Nile TV, interviews people who have converted to Islam. The interviewer frequently praises his guests for improving their lives by having chosen "the right path." Similarly, the religion page, which appears weekly in the prominent, pro-government daily al-Ahram, often reports on conversions to Islam and reports factually on how converts improved their lives and found peace and moral stability, things they said they lacked in their previous faith.
Since 1995 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. A hearing scheduled for February 25 never took place. Upon his appearance, the court informed Nakhla that the case documents had been withdrawn and forwarded to the president of the State's Council, a highly unusual procedure. No new hearing date has been set, and it appears unlikely that the case will be heard.
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 has been improvement in a few areas, government discriminatory practices include: discrimination against Christians in the public sector; discrimination against Christians in staff appointments to public universities; payment of Muslim imams through public funds (Christian clergy are paid by private church funds); and refusal to admit Christians to Al-Azhar University (which is publicly funded). In general public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers refuse to admit non-Muslims because the curriculum involves the study of the Koran; however, in 2001 the first Christian graduated from an Arabic-language department at the Suez Canal University.
Anti-Semitic articles and editorials are published in privately owned papers and to a lesser extent, the pro-Government press. The Government reportedly has advised journalists and cartoonists to avoid anti-Semitism. However, government officials insist that manifestations of anti-Semitism in the media are a reaction to Israeli government actions against Palestinians and do not reflect historical anti-Semitism.
The Ministry of Culture contested a 2001 Alexandria court ruling in favor of a suit brought on by a local resident calling for cancellation of an annual Jewish celebration at the tomb of Rabbi Abu Hasira in the Delta on the grounds of indecency, as well as suspension of a Ministry of Culture decree declaring the tomb an antiquity site protected by the Government. The festival was not held in 2002 and the case was pending before a higher administrative court at the end of the period covered by this report.
Although the Coptic Orthodox Church won a lawsuit to reclaim several plots of land in greater Cairo in 2000, there continued to be no new returns during the period covered by this report.
According to a 1995 law, the application of family law, including marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody, 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 Shar'ia 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.
Inheritance laws for all citizens are based on Shari'a. 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. The 2000 Personal Status Law makes 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.
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 permits divorce only in specific circumstances, such as adultery or conversion of one spouse to another religion.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
The Government at times prosecutes members of religious groups whose practices deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs, and whose activities are believed to jeopardize communal harmony. For example in 2002 eight persons were convicted of insulting a heavenly religion and received 3-year prison sentences.
In a February retrial of 50 men first arrested in Cairo in May 2001 on suspicion of homosexual activity, a criminal court convicted 21 of "habitual debauchery" and sentenced them to the maximum 3-year sentence. The verdict was pronounced although judges had not allowed any substantive discussion of the case during several hearings. In May 2002, President Mubarak ratified the verdicts against two men, who had allegedly advocated a belief system that combined Islam and tolerance for homosexuality and had been subsequently convicted of violating Article 98(F) and sentenced to 5 and 3 years in November 2001. Although he ratified the verdicts against 2 of the defendants, the president ordered the retrial of the remaining 50 in a regular criminal court; the State Security Emergency Court acquitted 29 of the 50; 20 others received 2-year sentences and 1 received a 1-year sentence for "habitual debauchery."
In May 2002, a State Security Emergency Court in Nasr City (in greater Cairo) began hearing the case of 21 persons accused of "insulting religion due to unorthodox Islamic beliefs and practices." During the trial, 17 of the defendants remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report, while 4 were released. The trial ended on September 28, 2002 with the conviction of Sayyed Tolba, Gamalat Soliman, and 19 others. Tolba received 3 years in prison, Soliman 1-year in prison, and the rest received 1 year suspended sentences.
In 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.
Neither the Constitution nor the Civil and Penal Codes prohibit proselytizing, but those accused of proselytizing have been 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.
While there are no legal restrictions on the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, there are occasional reports that police harass Christians who had converted from Islam. The law prescribes steps to register the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam but does not recognize the conversion of Muslims to other religions. Converts to Islam are not permitted to revert to their original religion. The minor children of converts to Islam, and in some cases adult children, may automatically become classified as Muslims in the eyes of the state regardless of the status of the other spouse. This is in accordance with "established" Islamic Shari'a rule, which dictates "no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim."
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.
On December 29, 2002, Malak Fahmi, a Christian, and his wife Sarah, a Christian convert from Islam, were arrested while attempting to leave the country with their two children. The couple was charged with falsification of documents. Sarah, who reportedly changed her name and religious affiliation on her marriage certificate only, stated that she did so without her husband's assistance. On May 6, a judge ordered the renewal of their detention for another 45 days.
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 several hundred persons allegedly associated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Most observers believe that the Government was seeking to undermine Muslim Brotherhood organization of pro-Palestinian and anti-U.S. and anti-Israel demonstrations. In 2002 the Government arrested Muslim Brotherhood supporters following a People's Assembly by-election in Alexandria. President Mubarak referred three alleged extremist groups to trial before military tribunals.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion carried out by the Government; however, 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. Reports of such cases almost never appear in the local media. 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. However, there are credible reports of government harassment of or lack of cooperation with 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.
Although some Coptic activists maintain that government officials do not respond effectively to instances of alleged kidnapping, in April police in Minya intervened in the case of Nivine Malak Kamel, a 17-year-old Christian girl allegedly kidnapped by Muslim Reda Hussan Abu Zeid. In May police returned her to her family.
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 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. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and the increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence, government religious institutions such as Al-Azhar accelerated a schedule of interfaith discussions inside the country and abroad. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Tantawi, and Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda participated in joint public events, such as a May meeting hosted by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs at which the Pope was invited to deliver an address.
In September 2002, the Joint Dialogue Commission of the Anglican Church and al-Azhar University held its second annual meeting. Participants agreed that peace was inseparable from justice, stated that "acceptance of the other" must be promoted, and reaffirmed their commitment to joint action for peace, justice, and mutual respect.
In October 2002, a prominent Coptic NGO, in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Religious Endowments), held a two-day seminar at which Muslim scholars, evangelical pastors, and intellectuals from both communities participated.
During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to take steps to contain incidents of sectarian tension. In a number of cases reported in the media, Government officials participated in the consecration ceremonies for new churches. For example, in February, the Governor of Sohag and other officials, including a representative of the Ministry of Awqaf along with other Islamic figures, participated with the Bishop of Tahta, Sohag, in laying the cornerstone for the Mar Guirguis church in Tahta. In January Pope Shenouda and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny consecrated a church in the Red Sea governorate. In December 2002, the Governor of Qena province participated with Orthodox clergy in a ceremony laying the cornerstone for the Virgin Mary church in Naga' Hammadi.
In December 2002, President Mubarak announced that January 7, Christmas on the Eastern calendar, would henceforth be a national holiday. Pope Shenouda, other Christian leaders, and the Muslim community warmly welcomed the move as an important symbol of acknowledgment of the rights and status of Christians in society. Subsequently, Gamal Mubarak, son of the president and a senior figure in the ruling National Democratic Party, attended Christmas Eve services, a move interpreted as a demonstration of interfaith tolerance.
In March 2002, the Government and the American NGO Athra Kadisha completed the Basatin cemetery bridge. The project, on which negotiations began in 1989, is a modern highway--part of Cairo's Ring Road--that traverses a cemetery but respects Jewish religious strictures against moving or disturbing burial sites.
Government-owned television and radio continued to provide programming time devoted to Christian issues, including live broadcast of Christmas and Easter services. Excerpts from Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda's weekly public addresses, documentaries on the country's monasteries, the travels of the Holy Family and other aspects of Christian history, and discussions among Muslims and Christians of local and international topics including discrimination appeared regularly in pro-government newspapers. Christian clergy spoke on popular television programs such as "Good Morning Egypt" about current topics and Christian religious beliefs. A version of Sesame Street especially designed for the country by the Children's Television Workshop with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance that began in August 2000, gained broad viewership among young children and many of their parents. Among the aims of the program is the promotion of tolerance, and one of the principal characters is a Christian.
Government and independent newspapers published a broad spectrum of news and views on religious topics, particularly following the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001. The government-run printing house Dar al-Ma'arif published for sale a new edition of the four Christian gospels, resuming a practice that had stopped decades ago.
The Minister of Education has developed and distributed curricular materials instructing teachers in government schools to discuss and promote tolerance in teaching. Government schools began using a new curriculum on the Coptic and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history, developed with the advice and support of Christian intellectuals and the Coptic Orthodox Church.
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. However, at times religious tensions flare up, individual acts of prejudice occur, and members of both faiths practice discrimination.
In February 2002, Muslim residents attacked and damaged a church in the village of Bani Walmiss. During the period covered by this report, the Government funded the repair of the church, and it officially reopened.
In July 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.
In December 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.
The case of Ahmad and Ibrahim Nasir, who were sentenced to 7 years in prison for the September 1999 murder of a monk in Assiyut, 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.
On June 23, 2002, a State Security Court in Assiyut began hearing the trial of Mohammed Abdel Azim, accused of participating in the killing of 13 Christians in the village of Sanbo in March 1992. Abdel Azim had been sentenced in absentia to 3 years in prison in 1994. Saudi Arabia extradited him to Egypt in late 2001. The case was transferred in early 2003 to a regular criminal court and the next hearing is scheduled for later in the year.
On February 27, the retrial of 96 defendants tried in connection with the December 1999-January 2000 violence, which left 21 Christians and 1 Muslim dead in the village of Al-Kush, ended with the acquittal of 93 and the conviction of 3. Of the three convicted, one Muslim defendant was found guilty of killing the sole Muslim victim (mistaken for a Christian), and was sentenced to 3 years. A third was convicted of destruction of property. Charges against a fourth deceased defendant were dropped. On March 13, the Egyptian Office of the Public Prosecutor, unsatisfied with the failure to hold any persons responsible for the deaths of the Christians, appealed the case to the Court of Cassation. During the period covered by this report, no date had been set for the Court to hear the case.
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, and if a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, the Church excommunicates her. Local authorities sometimes allow custody of a minor Christian female who converts to Islam to be transferred 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. Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf engage in frequent public and private interfaith discussions with Christians of various denominations, both within the country and in other countries. NGOs such as the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) are active in organizing formal and informal interfaith events; CEOSS held such events in September and October 2002, and in March with the participation of Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Awqaf, and Christian clerics. In these events, Muslim and Christian youth met to discuss issues such as citizenship, media affairs, and societal violence. Private Christian schools admit Muslim students, and religious charities serve both communities.
Anti-Semitic articles, which can be found in both the pro-government press and in the press of the opposition parties, increased late in 2000 and again in 2001 following the outbreak of violence in Israel and the occupied territories. There have been no violent anti-Semitic incidents in recent years directed at the tiny Jewish community still residing in Egypt.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The subject of religious freedom is an important part of the bilateral dialogue. 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. The Ambassador also has made public statements supporting interfaith understanding and efforts toward harmony and equality among Egyptians of all faiths. Visiting congressional delegations have raised religious freedom issues during visits with government officials.
The U.S. Embassy maintains an active dialogue 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. The Embassy also discusses religious freedom with a range of contacts, including academics, businessmen, and citizens outside of the capital area. Mission officials actively challenge anti-Semitic articles in the media through immediate contacts with editors-in-chief. For example, the Ambassador and various other Embassy officers met with government officials to express U.S. dismay at the anti-Semitic themes portrayed in the TV series "Horseman Without a Horse."
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, supporting secular channels and the broadening of a civic culture that promote religious tolerance. An interagency small-grants program managed by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo supports projects that promote tolerance and mutual respect between Muslims and Coptic Christians.
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, including among different religions. The program began broadcasting in August 2000; in 2002 household survey data showed that it was reaching more than 90 percent of elementary school-aged children (see Section II). The State Department is currently funding a program for journalists that promotes balanced, fact-based reporting as a means to mitigate and reduce social conflict.
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