Reports on Religious Freedom: Egypt
The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religion, although the Government places restrictions on this right. According to the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion and Shari'a (Islamic law) is the primary source of legislation; religious practices that conflict with the official interpretation of Shari'a are prohibited. However, since the Government does not consider the practice of Christianity or Judaism to conflict with Shari'a, for the most part members of the non-Muslim minority worship without harassment and may maintain links with coreligionists in other countries. Members of religions that are not recognized by the Government, such as the Baha'i Faith, may experience personal and collective hardship.
In some areas, there were improvements in the Government's respect for religious freedom; however, there continued to be abuses and restrictions during the period covered by this report. In January, the Government established a National Human Rights Council (NHRC), headed by a Coptic Christian. The NHRC was entrusted with protecting and improving the status of human rights, including religious freedom.
The prosecution failed to bring a successful case against those alleged to be responsible for killing 21 Christians during the 2000 sectarian strife early in the town of al-Kush, Upper Egypt. The Court of Cassation, the country's highest appellate court, upheld the acquittal of 94 of 96 suspects who were charged with various offenses committed in this incident. The Court's decision left public prosecutors and human rights activists with no further legal options. An investigation of police torture of dozens of mostly Christian detainees that took place during the inquiry of a 1998 incident involving the killing of two Copts in al-Kush made little progress and has appeared effectively closed since 2001. A Coptic Christian was convicted and sentenced for the two murders; his appeal, which has been pending for 4 years, had not been heard by the end of the period covered by this report.
Other abuses included the arrest of nine Shi'a Muslims in December 2003 and March. Five were released within several weeks; three were detained without charge, two of whom were not released until April and June. The third and another individual arrested in March were still in detention without charge at the end of the period covered by this report. There were credible reports that at least three of the four individuals held in detention were tortured. The Government also denied identity papers, birth certificates, and marriage licenses to members of the very small Baha'i community and offered no legal means for the small number of converts from Islam to Christianity to amend their civil records to reflect their new religious status; however, the Government does not legally discriminate between Muslim and non-Muslim converts. The Government also continued to prosecute a small number of citizens for unorthodox religious beliefs and practices that "insult heavenly religions."
There generally continued to be religious discrimination and sectarian tension in society during the period covered by this report. The al-Kush case has become a symbol of sectarian tensions, possibly violent, that continued to exist in the country.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The Ambassador, senior administration officials, and members of Congress 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 70.5 million, of whom almost 90 percent are Sunni Muslims. Shi'a Muslims constitute less than 1 percent of the population. Approximately 8 to 10 percent of citizens 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, established in the middle of the 19th century, now includes 17 Protestant denominations. There also are followers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was granted legal status in the 1960s. There are small numbers of Mormons and members of Jehovah's Witnesses, but the Government does not recognize either group. 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 to be between several hundred and two thousand. The Jewish community numbers fewer than 200 persons.
Christians are dispersed throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians tends to be higher in Upper Egypt (the southern part of the country) and some sections of Cairo and Alexandria.
There are many foreign religious groups, especially Roman Catholics and Protestants who have had a presence in the country for almost a century and engage predominately in education, social, and development work. The Government generally tolerates these groups if they do not proselytize.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religion; however, the Government places restrictions on this right. According to the Constitution, Islam is the official state religion, and Shari'a is the primary source of legislation; religious practices that conflict with the official interpretation of Shari'a are prohibited. However, since the Government does not consider the practice of Christianity or Judaism to conflict with Shari'a, for the most part members of the non-Muslim minority worship without legal harassment and may maintain links with coreligionists in other countries. Members of other religions that are not recognized by the Government, such as the Baha'i Faith, may experience personal and collective hardship.
For a religious denomination to be officially recognized, 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 in the country, particularly the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Sheikh 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 and punishment under Article 98(F) of the Penal Code, which forbids the "ridiculing of a heavenly religion."
The Constitution requires elementary and secondary schools to offer religious instruction. Public and private schools provide religious instruction according to the faith of the student. During the period covered by this report, the Minister of Education denied charges that his plan to introduce courses on rational ethics into the national curriculum was an attempt to phase out the teaching of religion in public schools.
The Government continued to encourage interfaith dialogue. The religious establishment of Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Religious Endowments) engage in interfaith discussions, both domestically and abroad. Government literacy programs promoted reading materials that encourage mutual tolerance. During the period covered by this report, the Government formed the NHRC, which was entrusted with protecting, supporting, developing, upholding, and improving the status of human rights, including religious freedom. The Government appointed a Coptic Christian as its president and named prominent Copts to 5 of the council's 25 seats.
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 Coptic Christmas (January 7).
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
All mosques must be licensed, and the Government attempts to control them legally for the stated purpose of combating extremists. The Government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in mosques and monitors their sermons; however, it does not similarly contribute to the building, repair, or funding of Christian churches. In April, the Minister of Awqaf announced that of the more than 82,000 mosques in the country, the Government controls administratively 62,000 regular mosques and 16,000 mosques located in private buildings. The Government annexes new mosques every year, but the process does not keep pace with new mosque construction.
The contemporary interpretation of 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, under the Al-Ezabi decree, 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 involve factors such as the location of the proposed site, the religious composition of the surrounding community, and the proximity of other churches and mosques. The Ottoman decree also required the head of state to approve permits for the repair of church facilities.
In 1996, human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 1934 decree, which was based on the 1856 Ottoman decree. In 2002, the State Commissioners' Body, which is essentially responsible for reviewing lawsuits made against the Government, issued a "final" advisory opinion, rejecting the lawsuit on the grounds that the challenged decree was issued before the Commissioners' Body was established in 1946 and thus is excluded from the Body's legal jurisdiction. Subsequently, in an April 2003 hearing, a judge ruled that no further consideration of the lawsuit was warranted. In June 2003, the Administrative Court, which is part of the State Council, similarly rejected the case on the grounds that the decree in question was issued in 1934, before the establishment of the State Council, established in 1947. The Administrative Court argued that it could not rule on a law predating its establishment. Naklah's appeal before the Higher Administrative Court was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.
Since 1998, presidential decrees are required only for the building of new churches, while repair permits are issued at the Governorate level. 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 repair of churches and mosques on equal footing before the law and facilitates church repairs. However, local permits for such repairs are still subject to approval by security authorities. Even though mosque and church repairs are now subject to the same laws, enforcement of the laws appears to be much stricter for churches than for mosques. Security officials also may deny or delay permits for the supply of water and electricity. Incidents of blocked or delayed permits vary, often depending on the attitude of local security officials and the governor toward the church and on their personal relationships with the local Christian church's representatives.
According to statistics published by the Government's Official Gazette, during the period covered by this report President Mubarak approved seven permits for church-related construction compared with the nine permits reported during the previous period. Three of these permits were for evangelical Christian churches and four were for Coptic churches. However, government officials have asserted that most permits issued are not published in the Gazette. According to these officials, 254 permits for the building and repair of churches were issued between January 1 and June 15.
Overall, the approval process for church construction continued to be time-consuming and insufficiently responsive to the requests of Christians. 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 at times denied them permits for repairs to church buildings and the supply of water and electricity to existing church facilities. Christian observers believe that government officials, particularly at the local security level, zealously enforce regulations pertaining to church projects while exercising lax oversight of the repair and construction of mosques.
In March, the country's Supreme Constitutional Court dismissed a case an individual brought against the Coptic Orthodox Church. The judges ruled that the Constitution required that Christian and Muslim endowments be treated under an equal standard and that Christian endowments, like Muslim endowments, could not be sued. Christian advocates hoped the judgment would set a precedent for "equal treatment" between Islamic and Christian facilities with implications for other legal cases they are pursuing.
Despite this ruling, numerous complaints of delayed church construction and repair projects continued during the period covered by this report. Among the many complaints was the case of St. George Church in Dafesh, a majority Christian community near Assiyut, Upper Egypt. After a wait of many years, in 1998 the parish obtained a permit to build a new church to replace the original building, which had grown too small to accommodate the growing community. Shortly after construction began in 2000, the new site was vandalized, allegedly by local Muslim residents, prompting the Government to freeze the project, which remained halted at the end of the period covered by this report. The congregation continues to worship at the older site.
In Ezbet al-Nakhl, East Cairo, Coptic leaders of the Church of the Archangel Mikhail received permission from the Ministry of Interior in 1996, ratified by the Governor of Cairo in 2001, to expand the church to accommodate its growing congregation. However, local authorities in the district of al-Marg refused to accept the request to expand the church without a presidential decree, which is required for the renovation. The church, which had originally sought a presidential decree in 1987, had not been able to obtain one, and the project remained frozen at the end of the period covered by this report. Government officials asserted that the project was frozen because church officials did not employ the proper procedures while seeking a presidential decree, therefore making it illegal to renovate the church.
In 2002, the Government ordered the closure of a building in Tenth of Ramadan City, east of Cairo, used as a training and conference center by the Protestant Qasr al-Doubbara Church of Central Cairo. The Church successfully fought the closure, obtaining a government decree in November 2003 that ordered the reopening of the facility. However, the municipality appealed the decision and continued to block use of the building on the grounds that the building, which is zoned as a residence, did not have a permit for it to operate as a public building.
As a result of restrictions, some communities use private buildings and apartments for religious services or build without permits. An Orthodox church, St. John the Baptist, in Awlad Ilyas, near Assiyut, has been using the church's courtyard for prayers because local police prevented repairs to the church structure in 2001. Repairs were halted because authorities believed that the church would enlarge its size by extending the building into the churchyard. After negotiations with state security officers, the church received permission to demolish the existing wall to extend its size. However, after the newspaper Al-Watani had published an article exposing this issue and the outcome, state security officials halted construction a second time. At the end of the period covered by this report, construction had not resumed and the Church was still waiting for the Minister of Interior to permit resumption of repairs.
The Government continued to try citizens for unorthodox religious beliefs. On January 28, a State Security Emergency Court issued a verdict against Sunni Muslims Sayyed Tolba, Gamal Sultan, and 17 others, superseding a 2002 verdict in which Tolba had been sentenced to 3 years. The court sentenced Tolba and Sultan to a year's imprisonment and gave suspended sentences to the remaining defendants, after finding them guilty of practicing religious beliefs "deviant from Islamic Shari'a."
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. During the period covered by this report, dozens of members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested and charged with membership in an illegal organization, and several others were prevented from traveling abroad. Dozens of suspected Brotherhood members were also released during this period. 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 stop 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.
Various ministries are legally 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 Islamic 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. Al-Azhar has the legal right to recommend confiscation, but the actual act of confiscation requires a court order. For example, Al-Azhar generally becomes involved if there is a formal complaint filed about a particular book. However, al-Azhar generally does not have the right to rule on secular publications. In June 2003, the Government's Ministry of Justice issued a decree authorizing Al-Azhar sheikhs to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law; however, there were no new cases during the period covered by this report.
In December 2003, the Islamic Research Center (IRC) recommended banning the book "Discourse and Interpretations" by Nasr Abou Zeid. IRC member Dr. Mohammed Emara was quoted as claiming the book contradicted Islamic tenets. The Government did not act on the recommendation by the end of the period covered by this report.
The local media, including state television and newspapers with some governmental oversight, 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 persons 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 daily al-Ahram, a privately funded newspaper with some governmental oversight, often reports on conversions to Islam and reports factually on how converts improved their lives and found peace and moral stability, things the converts said they lacked in their previous faith. While Christian television programs are aired on Nile TV, they are not presented on a regular basis.
Law 263 of 1960, which is still in force, bans Baha'i institutions and community activities. The Government confiscated all Baha'i community properties, including Baha'i centers, libraries, and cemeteries. The problems of Baha'is, who number fewer than 2,000 persons in the country, have been compounded since the Ministry of Interior began to upgrade its automation of civil records, including national identity cards. The Government's new software requires all citizens to be categorized as Muslims, Christians, or Jews. Baha'is and other religious groups who do not fit into any of these categories have been compelled either to misrepresent themselves as members of one of these three religions or to go without valid identity documents, passports, birth and death certificates, and marriage licenses. Most Baha'is have chosen the latter course.
The Constitution provides for equal public rights and duties without discrimination based on 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 or deans of public universities. Christians are underrepresented in Parliament and are infrequently nominated by the Government to run in elections as National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates.
There also are few Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces. Although there have been improvements in a few areas, government discriminatory practices continued to 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 (a publicly-funded institution). In general, public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers refuse to admit non-Muslims because the curriculum involves the study of the Koran. In 2001, the first Christian graduated from an Arabic-language department at the Suez Canal University, but there have been no reports of Christian graduates since 2001.
Anti-Semitic sentiments appear in both the independent press and press with some governmental oversight. The Government reportedly has advised journalists and cartoonists to avoid anti-Semitism. Government officials insist that anti-Semitic statements in the media are a reaction to Israeli government actions against Palestinians and do not reflect historical anti-Semitism; however, there are relatively few public attempts to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment.
In January, the country's Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court's 2001 decision to ban an annual festival at the tomb of Rabbi Abu Hasira in a village in the Nile Delta and rejected the Ministry of Culture's designation of the site as a protected antiquity. The 2001 decision linked the status of the site and the festival to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the celebration has not been held in the past 3 years.
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. 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. The State does not recognize the marriages of citizen adherents to faiths other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
Under Shari'a, as practiced in the country, 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 the official interpretation of 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 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.
The Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates women members who marry Muslim men and requires that other Christians convert to Coptic Orthodoxy to marry a member of the Church. Coptic males are prevented from marrying Muslim women by both civil and religious laws. A civil marriage abroad is an option should a Coptic male and Muslim female decide to marry. 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 prosecution failed to bring a successful case against those alleged to be responsible for the killing of 21 Christians during sectarian strife in early 2000 in the town of al-Kush, in Sohag Governate, Upper Egypt. The Court of Cassation, the country's highest appellate court, upheld on June 14, the acquittal of 94 of 96 suspects who were charged with various offenses committed in this incident. The Court's decision left public prosecutors and Christian advocates with no further legal options. In the investigation of an earlier incident in al-Kush in 1998 involving the killing of two Copts, the police detained hundreds of citizens, including relatives of suspects, women, and children. Local observers reported that many of these detainees were subjected to torture and mistreatment. An investigation of police torture of the mostly Christian detainees made little progress and has appeared effectively closed since 2001. Shayboub William Arsal, a Coptic Christian, was convicted and sentenced for the two murders and his appeal, which has been pending for 4 years, has not been heard. The local Christian community believes that Shayboub was accused and convicted of the crime because of his religion. The two al-Kush cases have become a symbol of sectarian tensions, possibly violent, that continued to exist in the country.
The Government at times prosecutes members of religious groups whose practices are deemed to deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs, and whose activities are believed to jeopardize communal harmony. In December 2003, eight persons were arrested by state security agents in Ras Gharib, on the Red Sea coast, apparently due to their affiliation with Shi'a Islam, which is not officially recognized by the Government but acknowledged as a branch of Islam by Al-Azhar. Five were released within several weeks, but three, Adil Shazly, Ahmed Goma'a, and Mohammed Hamam Omar, were sent to prison in Cairo and Wadi Natroun for interrogation. There were credible reports that they were tortured and mistreated in detention. By the end of the period covered by this report, Goma'a and Omar had been released, but Shazly remained in prison.
On March 21, Mohammed Ramadan Mohammed Hussein, also known as Mohammed al-Derini, leader of an unrecognized Shi'a organization, "the Supreme Council for Descendants of the Prophet," was arrested in Cairo. Derini continued to be held without charge at the end of the period covered by this report.
In March, a State Security Emergency Court found 26 persons, including 3 Britons, guilty of membership in an illegal subversive organization (the Islamic Liberation Party) and obstructing law and the Constitution. The defendants received sentences of 1 to 5 years. There were credible reports that defendants were tortured during the Government's investigation of the case.
In May, the Government confiscated the identity cards of Baha'is Hossam Ezzat Moussa and Rania Roushdy, who were applying for passports. Officials told them that they were acting on instructions from the Ministry of Interior to confiscate any identity cards belonging to Baha'is.
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 still pending at the end of the period covered by the report.
In August 2003, at the historic monastery of St. Anthony at a remote location in the eastern desert, Christian monks and supporters confronted more than 100 security personnel and numerous bulldozers deployed by the Governor of the Red Sea province to destroy a wall built by the monastery that enclosed land belonging to the State. Although they admitted they did not have title to the land enclosed by the wall, monastery leaders asserted that the wall was built at the urging of government security officials. After a tense standoff, a compromise was reached in which the Government agreed to sell the land enclosed by the wall to the monastery.
In January, Christian workers at the Patmos Center, a Coptic Orthodox social service facility on the Suez road east of Cairo, confronted soldiers and an army bulldozer dispatched from a military base adjacent to the facility. During the confrontation, one of the Christian workers was fatally struck by a private bus attempting to drive around the crowd. This incident was the latest in a series involving Patmos and the neighboring military base. The army's reported pretext for bulldozing the gate was that the Patmos Center's wall stands 50 meters from the highway, while local zoning regulations require a distance of 100 meters. Christian sources noted that the army base's perimeter wall also is only 50 meters from the road, and they charged that the army's intent was to harass the Christians until they quit the site so that it could be annexed by the military. Other observers believed the military's enmity was engendered by the "stealthy" way the church developed a Christian service facility on a site originally billed as an agricultural "desert reclamation project."
In May, a Coptic priest and two members of his church were killed while in a vehicle driven by a police officer. The officer lost control of the vehicle, and it fell into a canal. The police officer had appeared at the St. Mina Church in the village of Taha, in the Samalout district of Minya Governorate, and ordered the priest, Father Ibrahim Mikhail, to come to the police station to make a report regarding his church's unauthorized repair of a fence. In an obituary placed in the paper al-Ahram, Father Mikhail and the other victims were described as "martyrs" of the 1856 Ottoman church building decree. The deaths prompted angry reactions from local Christian leaders and emotional demonstrations from the Christian community. The police officer, who was not seriously injured in the incident, reportedly was suspended and referred for an inquiry into his actions. The Government maintained that the vehicle crash was accidental, noting that the police driver was among those injured. The Government has advised that his actions are the subject of an investigation for possible violations of procedure.
Neither the Constitution nor the Civil and Penal Codes prohibits 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.
In late January, four Christians were arrested by state security agents in Nuweiba, on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, and detained without charge. The four reportedly were found to be in possession of an undetermined amount of Christian religious materials and were apparently suspected of proselytizing. The four were released on April 3. Government sources reported that no charges would be pursued against them.
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. However, government officials have asserted that this occasional harassment stems from the actions of a few individuals and is not a result of police policy.
There are no legal restrictions on the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. The law prescribes administrative steps to register such conversions. 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 irrespective 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."
Although not forbidden by law, the State does not recognize conversions from Islam to Christianity or other religions. In cases involving conversion from Islam to Christianity, authorities periodically charge converts with violating laws prohibiting the falsification of documents. In such instances, converts who have no legal means to register their change in religious status sometimes resort to soliciting illicit identity papers, often by submitting fraudulent supporting documents or bribing the government clerks who process the documents.
In October 2003, 20 persons were arrested and charged with document fraud after the exposure of several civil-documents clerks involved in processing falsified documents for converts. During questioning after their arrest, they were deprived of sleep, food, and water, and Yusef Soliman was beaten on several occasions. Soliman was released on November 9 and Mariam Makar on December 24. All but Makar and Soliman were released within hours of their arrest. In response to inquiries about the case, the Government asserted that Makar and Soliman were arrested for running a forgery ring. The Government maintained that the majority of those Christians who were arrested had converted to Islam and then back to Christianity for personal matters such as obtaining a divorce from their spouses (which is possible for Muslims but not recognized by the Coptic Church).
In December 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. The couple was released in February, but they reportedly were awaiting trial on charges of document fraud at the end of the period covered by this report.
In 1997, human rights activist Mamdouh Naklah filed a lawsuit seeking the 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 Nakhlah 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 was set, and it appears unlikely that the case will be heard.
In April, an administrative court issued a verdict allowing a Christian woman, who had converted to Islam and later converted back to Christianity, to recover her original (Christian) name and identity. Some legal observers believed the case would constitute a significant precedent as the Government has generally refused to acknowledge citizens' conversions from Islam to Christianity. The court's written verdict noted "...the Constitution guarantees equality among citizens...without any discrimination based on race, sex, language, or faith. The State also guarantees freedom of thought and religious faith in accordance with Article 46 of the Constitution...[the State] is legally committed to register the woman's real religion and is not allowed under any circumstance to use its assigned powers to force the woman to remain Muslim." By the end of the period covered by this report, it remained unclear whether this ruling would set a broad precedent for the Government's treatment of converts from Islam.
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. Internal security services monitor groups and individuals they suspect of involvement in or planning for extremist activity. Internal security agencies regularly detain such persons, and the state of emergency allows them to renew periods of administrative detention ad infinitum.
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 male. Reports of such cases almost never appear in the local media. According to the Government, in such cases the girl must meet with her priest or the head of her church before she is allowed to convert. However, in cases of marriage between an underage Christian girl and a Muslim male, there are credible reports of government harassment, especially by the police, or lack of cooperation with Christian families that attempt to regain custody of their daughters. There are similar reports in these cases 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.
Some Coptic activists maintain that government officials do not respond effectively to instances of alleged kidnapping. For example, the family of 18-year-old Ingy Helmy Labib alleged that in early January, she was abducted by Muslim extremists and forcibly converted to Islam. However, police in the town of Mahalla al-Kubra, in the Nile Delta police station north of Cairo, asserted that she left home and converted to Islam of her own volition. The family alleged that Labib suffered from mental illness and that her abductors exploited her condition. However, specific evidence of forced abduction was not available. In June, her family reported that she had returned home.
According to the law, persons above the age of 16 may convert to Islam without their parents' consent and even mental deficiency does not preclude a person's conversion. Police responses to such charges vary from case to case. In April 2003, 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, and in May 2003, the police returned her to her family.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion, including 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.
In January, the Government announced the formation of the NCHR. The Government's appointments to the Council of prominent and credible figures were welcomed by a broad spectrum of observers. The Council's appointed president, Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali, is a Copt and is among the country's most respected public figures. In addition, 5 of the 25 members appointed to the Council are Coptic Christians. His deputy, Dr. Kamal Aboul Maged, is a prominent Islamic intellectual and a former Minister of Information. In May, the Council's cultural committee announced it would sponsor a training course for Muslim and Christian religious leaders on the subject of "religion and human rights."
The Anglican Church and al-Azhar University opened a formal dialogue in September 2001 in which participants agreed that peace was inseparable from justice. They also stated that "acceptance of the other" must be promoted, and they reaffirmed their commitment to joint action for peace, justice, and mutual respect. However, the third annual joint dialogue scheduled for September 2003 was postponed when delegates from al-Azhar declined to attend, reportedly at the request of the Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III. Earlier in September, Pope Shenouda publicly objected to the U.S. Anglican Church's evolving position on homosexual clergy.
A prominent Coptic nongovernmental organization (NGO) continued its program of interreligious dialogue in cooperation with the Ministry of Islamic Religious Endowments. The program encouraged interaction between young Muslim and Christian religious leaders and included a major conference on citizenship and education, as well as a series of workshops, training courses, and seminars.
During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to take steps to contain incidents of sectarian tension. Independent observers believed the Government's relatively quick deployment of extra police during incidents of sectarian tension in Gerza, Giza Governorate, in October 2003 and in Samalout, Minya Governorate, in May successfully preempted escalations in violence.
In a number of cases reported in the media, government officials participated in consecration ceremonies for new churches. In March, Pope Shenouda and 31 bishops conducted a historic visit to several cities in Upper Egypt. During stops in Luxor and Sohag, the Pope consecrated several new churches. He was received with the highest level of protocol by governors and local government officials, who escorted him during stops on his itinerary.
Representatives of the country's very small and decreasing Jewish community reported good security measures and generally satisfactory cooperation with different agencies of the Government.
Government-owned television and radio continued to provide programming time devoted to Christian issues, including live broadcast of Christmas and Easter services. The state-owned Nile Culture Channel, available on satellite, broadcast weekly Orthodox Church services and other Christian programming. 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, 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 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 the country's 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 October 2003, Muslim residents in a village in the district of Gerza, southwest of Cairo, reportedly objected violently to the plans of Christian residents to convert a meeting site into a church. The ensuing violence resulted in property damage to a number of Christian-owned homes. In response the Government deployed extra security forces to the area until tensions subsided.
In May, Christian residents in Samalout, Minya, Upper Egypt, protesting the death of a priest and two other Christians in an auto accident while in police custody, were met by Muslim counter-demonstrators, and the two sides reportedly traded taunts and insults. Police reinforcements were temporarily deployed to prevent escalation.
In 2002, Muslim residents attacked and damaged a church in the village of Bani Walmiss. In 2003, the Government funded the repair of the church, and it officially reopened in June 2003.
In July 2000, gunmen killed Christian farmer Magdy Ayyad Mus'ad and wounded five other persons in Giza Governorate, 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 and the case was pending.
In 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 within days of the incident. He was reported to be mentally ill and was subsequently released.
The case of Ahmad and Ibrahim Nasir, who were sentenced to 7 years in prison for the 1999 murder of a monk in Assiyut, remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report. On May 25, the Court of Cassation sustained an appeal by the Public Prosecutor seeking a heavier sentence. The brothers received 15-year prison terms, twice the original sentence. The brothers appealed, and their case was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.
While there is no legal requirement for a Christian girl or woman to convert to Islam 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 desire 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.
According to the law, persons above the age of 16 may convert to Islam without parental consent. 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; during the period covered by this report, CEOSS held numerous events which brought together Christian and Muslim youth leaders to discuss issues such as citizenship, media affairs, and societal violence. Private Christian schools admit Muslim students, and religious charities serve both communities.
In articles in the independent press, prominent leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church criticized Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists.
According to media reports, Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Center reiterated fatwas issued in previous decades condemning Baha'is as apostates.
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 the country.
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 the U.S. Government, including by the President, Secretary of State, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, the Ambassador, and other Embassy officials. The Embassy maintains formal contacts with the Office of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 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 citizens of all faiths. During a February visit, officials from the Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom met with minister-level and other government officials, religious leaders, and NGOs. Visiting congressional delegations also raised religious freedom issues during visits with government officials.
The 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 official 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. Officials from the Embassy and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) actively challenge anti-Semitic articles in the media through immediate contacts with editors-in-chief and other journalists.
In December 2003, Embassy officials consulted with the director of the Biblioteca Alexandrina, a prestigious international cultural and educational institution in Alexandria, regarding the library's inclusion in a display case of a copy of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious anti-Semitic forgery. The director issued a statement noting that "bad judgment and insensitivity" had been exercised in the selection of the book in the display, and he stated that it had been removed.
The 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 members of different religious communities.
The Mission also promotes civic education. 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 a version of the television program Sesame Street designed to reach remote households and which 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).
USAID supports private voluntary organizations that are implementing innovative curriculums in private schools. USAID is also 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