Religious freedom and human rights experts on Wednesday accused the Egyptian government of poor treatment of non-Muslims and alleged defamers of Islam, while calling on the U.S. government to do more to curtail such abuses. Witnesses present at a Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing on human rights in Egypt decried discriminatory policies against religious minorities such as Coptic Christians and Baha’is, and criticized President Hosni Mubarak for overseeing the propagation of intolerant messages through educational curricula and the media.
Harold Hongju Koh, a dean at Yale Law School and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, focused on the plight of Egyptian Baha’is, who have faced systemic oppression in a nation where they are often derided as “apostates of Islam.” Last year, in a particularly egregious court ruling that Koh said “demonized Baha’is and declared them to be effectively non-citizens,” adherents were denied the right to state their religion on the government identification cards needed to access most services. Koh equated Egypt’s strict demand for disclosure of religious identity to policies against the Jews in Nazi Germany and the Hutus in Rwanda.
Michael Meunier, the president the U.S. Copts Association, said the Egyptian government has attempted to play down attacks against Egyptian Christians and their churches – noting a violent sectarian clash earlier this month in the town of Bahma – and spoke out against longstanding regulations that restrict the groups’ freedom of worship and access to higher education. He also called for a unified church construction law that would apply to Muslim and non-Muslim places of worship and urged Egypt to set aside quotas to ensure greater non-Muslim representation in parliament, saying that religious minorities without a political voice would continue to face threats.
Nasser Weddady, the director of a civil rights group affiliated with the American Islamic Congress, addressed “the dramatic rise in interrogation and detention” of Egyptian bloggers, a group he said was “feeling the heat of a systematic campaign to silence their voices.” Earlier this year, activist blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years in prison for insulting religion and the president in his writings, and Weddady noted a more recent incident in which security forces raided an accused blogger’s home. “Blogging is the new frontier of free expression, as well as government oppression,” Weddady said. He called on U.S. lawmakers to create a “bloggers emergency task force” to address the issue.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) laid out three main concerns with regard to Egypt’s stance on religious freedom, adding that Members of Congress would soon send a letter to Mubarak voicing their displeasure. Rep. Franks’ cited: “recent limitations on individuals speaking out about religious persecution;” intolerant messages “perpetrated through the public education system and the mosques in Egypt, presumably by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters;” and recent statements by Egypt’s foreign minister calling for the creation of an international document that punishes those who “offend and defame religions.”
Rep. Franks’ last concern was widely echoed in witnesses’ testimony. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford said that the U.S. will call on Egypt and the United Nations to make the protection of victims of charges based on religion a “high priority.” Nina Shea, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, expressed concern that pressing charges for offending or defaming religion would become a wider standard. Weddady said it “sets a dangerous precedent” for the persecution of different religious interpretations.
Shea also called for closer scrutiny U.S. aid to the country and said she was “concerned about how aid is being or is not being used.”