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Two years on, what’s happened to Egypt’s dream of religious freedom?

By Shahira Amin / 27 February, 2013

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Egyptians who took to the streets in mass protests in January 2011 demanding the downfall of Mubarak’s authoritarian regime were rebelling — amongst other things — against restrictions on their civil liberties and infringement on their rights. Religious minorities, like Coptic Christians and Baha’is, who participated in the January 2011, 18- day mass uprising had hoped that toppling Egypt’s oppressive regime would usher in a new era of greater freedom of expression and equality. More than two years on, many of them say it has not.

Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Coptic Christians (who make up an estimated 12 per cent of the population) often complained of discrimination. They could not build or renovate churches without a presidential decree, never reached high positions in the army or police and were rarely appointed to senior government positions. Christians also had to settle for token representation in government and parliament (there were just two Christian ministers in the last cabinet before Mubarak was toppled).

In the last decade before Mubarak’s ousting, sectarian tensions flared sporadically in Egypt and those responsible for acts of violence against Copts were rarely brought to justice. Many Egyptians believe that a New Year’s Eve church bombing in Alexandria that left 21 people dead (mostly Christian worshippers who had been attending New Year’s Eve mass), fuelled the anger that led to the January 2011 revolt that erupted a few weeks later.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians were among the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in January 2011 demanding their rights as equal citizens. The rise of Islamists to power in Egypt post-revolution has raised concern among Christians that they could face further marginalisation and harassment.

During the presidential campaign, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had promised to be “a leader for all Egyptians.” He also vowed to appoint a Coptic-Christian Vice President and to “protect the rights of minorities.” But those promises have all fallen flat.

 Amr Alaswad - Demotix

A February demonstration in Tahrir Square against the Muslim Brotherhood

Last November, after violent clashes between Islamists and opposition protesters outside the Ittihadeya Presidential Palace over a Constitutional Declaration giving him absolute powers, Morsi addressed a rally organized by his Islamist supporters , accusing his opponents of being”‘paid thugs”. That appearance outside the palace earned Morsi criticism from liberal opposition parties and Christians who said that he had shown that he was the “President of the Islamists, rather than the elected leader of all Egyptians.”

Morsi has also reneged on his promise to appoint a Christian Vice President, appointing instead a Christian presidential aide — Samir Morcos — (the sole Christian out of a total of 21 presidential assistants) who resigned a few months later in protest at Morsi’s controversial decree. Morcos later said that the President had not consulted him before making the decision.

Egypt’s Christians also complain that Morsi has also done little to protect them against extremists’ threats..

Churches have continued to be torched and death threats by extremists have forced many Christians to flee their homes and at times — their villages — en masse. In the past year alone, Christians have been forcibly evacuated from the Alexandria district of Amreya and from Dahshour, a village 40 kms south of Cairo following sectarian tensions in their neighborhoods.

More recently, Christian families in the North Sinai border town of Rafah have had to flee to neighboring towns after receiving death threats from extremists. In October 2011, 27 Coptic Christians were killed by military and security forces during a protest staged outside the State Television building in downtown Cairo by Christians demanding government protection for their churches. Video footage of what has since come to be known as the “Maspero Massacre” showed Armoured Personnel Carriers running over protesters and live ammunition being used against them. Most of the victims died of gun-shot wounds .

Almost a year and a half later, no-one has been held responsible for the deaths. Instead, two Copts — Michael Naguib and Michael Shaker — have been convicted for their involvement in the violence after being charged with stealing a machine gun from the military and causing damage to public property. They have each been sentenced to three years in prison.

A new Islamist-backed constitution passed in a popular referendum in December 2012 has fueled fears of further alienation of Egypt’s religious minorities. Rights advocates say the new charter “restricts freedom of belief by limiting the right to practice one’s religion to the adherents of Abrahamic religions, thus discriminating against citizens on the basis of religion and undermining equal citizenship.”

Meanwhile, Article 2, stipulating that “the principles of Islamic Sharia Law are the main source of legislation” has remained unchanged from the previous Constitution, dashing hopes for a secular state aspired to by liberal opposition forces and Christians during the uprising. The only change in that provision is that Al Azhar — the highest authority in Sunni Islam — has now been tasked with interpreting those principles, a decision that critics say “indoctrinates a specific religious school of thought.”

Furthermore, liberals and Christians have expressed concern that an article which provides that “the state and society oversee the commitment to the genuine character of the Egyptan family ” may open the door for enforcement of a hardline vision of society by morality police. While the provision has had little impact in the past, Christians and liberal activists fear it may take on a new meaning under the Islamist regime. And last but not least, an article that guarantees freedom of expression and opinion has been undercut by other provisions that prohibit defamation and insults of people and prophets. Critics say both such articles restrict free expression as well as personal and religious freedom.

Indeed, media hate speech targeting Coptic Christians in recent weeks has confirmed Christians’ worst fears. Radical Salafi preachers appearing on independent religious channels have increasingly criticised Christians and incited violence against them. Islamist cleric Ahmed Abdalla (popularly known as Abu Islam) who burnt a Bible during a protest sparked by anger over the anti- Islam film “Innocence of Muslims ” last year, faces detention after being charged with “contempt of religion” — a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment in Egypt. A Coptic Christian lawyer had earlier filed a lawsuit against Abu Islam, accusing him of calling Christian women protesters “whores” on his TV talk show. Abu Islam had earlier stirred controversy by justifying rape and sexual assault against women who join the Tahrir protests saying that they go there because “they want to get raped.” Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel demanded that Abu Islam be prosecuted, adding that “Copts are bitter over the absence of justice in cases involving Christians.”

Seven Coptic Christians have been sentenced to death in absentia for their role in the anti-Islam film that sparked protests across the Muslim World last year. In October 2012, two Coptic children aged 10 and 9 were arrested and detained on charges of insulting Islam after they ripped pages from the Qur’an.

While the country’s new constitution grants Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims the right to “worship freely”, that same right is not afforded to other religious minorities in the country — such as Baha’is — who are banned from building places of worship.

For decades, Egypt’s estimated 4,000 Baha’is have been kept on the margins. The current discriminatory policies against them are a carry over from successive regimes. Unrecognised by the state, Baha’is were in the past, unable to obtain national ID cards (which allow holders to vote, buy and sell property and open bank accounts.) That changed in 2008 when a Cairo Court granted Bahais the right to issue Identification documents — albeit without stating their religion on the cards. All IDs of Baha’is are marked with a dash, thus distinguishing them from followers of the three officially recognised faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism). While the IDs have given Bahais certain rights (allowing them to issue other documents like birth, marriage and divorce certificates and enabling them to vote), they’ve also contributed to deepening the discrimination and stigma associated with the yet-unrecognised faith.

“I’ve heard stories of Bahais who’ve been rounded up and detained for nothing more than their faith,” said Somaya Ramadan, an Egyptian academic and award-winning writer who follows the Baha’i faith. She recalled that armed security forces had stormed the home of a Baha’i family in Tanta some years ago and arrested a Baha’i woman in the middle of the night , leaving her young children unattended. Like many followers of her faith, Ramadan is worried that Islamist rule in Egypt could lead to an upsurge in religious intolerance against members of her community and subsequently, restrict their freedom of expression, religion and assembly.

Recent statements by Education Ministry officials advocating that “Bahai children may have difficulty enrolling in government schools in future because the constitution only recognises the three Abrahamic faiths,” have confirmed Bahais’ worst fears.

“The January 2011 Revolution raised our hopes for justice, equality and freedom but now, we feel let down,” Ramadan told Index .

“The current government favours Muslims over people of other faiths. This attitude can only reinforce hypocrisy, encouraging people to lie about their religious beliefs. Islamising the society will only deepen the sectarian divisions in the country — The disenfranchisement of Bahais and other religious minorities must end.”

Still, she remains hopeful and is confident that change will come.

For that to happen, Egyptians need to take some bold steps to put their country back on a path of reconciliation and compromise — including amending provisions to the constitution that are ambiguous or unpopular with the public. President Morsi has recently appointed a committtee of legal experts and representatives of opposition political parties to discuss amendments to the charter. For the secular opposition activists and religious minorities in Egypt, the talks are a new opportunity to press for a document that truly secures freedom of religious expression and respects human rights — necessary conditions for a viable democracy.

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About Shahira Amin

Shahira Amin is a freelance Egyptian journalist who quit state run TV during the Jan 25th revolution in protest at the biased coverage of the Tahrir events.

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