Report slams lack of religious freedoms in Egypt

A report issued by the US State Department condemned the lack of respect for religious freedoms during the terms of President Mohamed Morsi and the interim government under his successor Adly Mansour.

The 2013 Religious Freedoms Report, issued on Monday, highlighted a number of deadly sectarian attacks by Islamist mobs, in what it deemed “collective punishment against Christians” in the wake of the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. The report cited 42 church attacks between August 14 and August 16 alone, which witnessed a peak of violence following the forced dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood camps in Cairo by security forces that left hundreds dead.

The government “continued to sponsor reconciliation sessions,” the report said, “instead of prosecuting the perpetrators of the crimes.” The outcomes of many of these sessions are perceived to be unfair, particularly by victims of the violence, it added.

A section of the report was devoted to government inaction vis a vis religious freedoms, particularly in response to assaults on particular groups. An example that was heavily cited is the late and lacking response of security forces to attacks on religious groups, such as Shias and Christians.

The report criticized legal cases against citizens for “blasphemy, denigration of religion, or insulting the Prophet Mohamed.” At least nine people, including two children, were documented to have been convicted under such charges in 2013. This is markedly different to previous years, in which the report said such cases didn’t reach indictment. According to the 2012 Constitution, passed by an Islamist majority, offending and criticizing prophets was prohibited and carried criminal penalties of six months to five years imprisonment.

The report also criticized the state for lack of responsibility towards religious minorities. It highlighted the longstanding issue of non-Muslims requiring presidential authorization to build places of worship. It also condemned the government’s failure to prevent attacks or reprimand individuals accused of crimes against religious minorities. Further, it cited government discrimination towards minority groups, particularly Christians, Bahais and Shias, and the barring of some from accessing government jobs.

“The Morsi administration routinely failed to condemn incendiary speech, including anti-Semitic and anti-Christian speech in mosque sermons and during broadcasts by Islamic TV evangelists,” the report said. Citing an example of such speech against Shias, the report recounted a speech during Morsi’s pro-Syria rally, during which a Salafi preacher called for the death of Shias in front of the president.

Tracing irregularities in the 2012 Constitution, enforced during most of 2013, the report said limiting the stipulation of legal rights to Christians and Jews excluded Bahais and Christian churches not recognized by the state. The constitution’s dependence on Al-Azhar regarding Sharia matters was also questioned by the report, as Sharia is the source of all legislation, giving a religious institution extensive rights over the drafting of laws.

Similarly, the Constitutional Declaration, passed by Mansour in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, included violations on religious freedoms, limiting religious rights to Muslims, Christians and Jews. The report also noted the omission of other guarantees of religious freedoms in the Constitutional Declaration that were present in the 2012 Constitution, such as the stipulation that “freedom of belief is an inviolable right.”

Differences between legality and practice have led to violations on religious freedoms, according to the report. For example, though there are no legal prohibitions regarding conversion from Islam to other religions, legal documents were not altered to reflect such decisions. Also, although Christians and Jews were able to follow their own legislation regarding matters of inheritance, they still had to abide by Sharia law.

The report, however, tracked some slight improvements during the interim government of Mansour, including measures to stop incendiary speech in mosques and on television channels and a small increase in the number of permits granted to build churches.

According to the report, 10 percent of Egypt’s estimated 85.3 million population is Christian, eight percent of which is Coptic, while the remaining two percent is made up of a mix of sects. Shias are estimated at less than one percent, while a smaller minority of Quranists and Ahmadi Muslims exist, as well as a group of about 2000 Bahais and 1500 Jehovah’s Witnesses. As for the Jewish community, it is estimated to be at less than 100 persons in the report, many of whom are senior citizens.

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