The United States (US) Department of State released its annual International Religious Freedom Report on Egypt in 2015 on Wednesday.
The report looks at how different religious communities in Egypt are treated. It highlights that Islam as the main religion of the state and its source of legislation, while shedding light on threats faced by religious minorities in practising their religious rites, and the lack of state measures to counter hate speech and sectarian violence.
This comes in light of mounting criticism by human rights groups to authorities’ handling of cases of sectarian tension, which have been on the rise in the past couple of months, especially in Upper Egypt.
Victims and human rights defenders have condemned the undermining of their rights through informal reconciliation sessions. Moreover, sectarian attacks have not diminished, and perpetrators in sectarian strife incidents were not held accountable by the law.
A case which drew public attention was that of an elderly Coptic woman, who was stripped off her clothes and dragged on the streets in Minya. The case sparked controversy and was mentioned by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in a speech, in which he vowed the perpetrators would be held responsible. A few weeks later, all defendants in the case were released without charges.
The US report said there was a “failure to act in the face of the victimisation of Christians” by the Egyptian state.
The report further mentioned restrictions on the religious practices of other religious communities, such as the Shi’a and Bahá’ís. “The government prevented religious practice at key sites in connection with some religious holidays. The Ministry of [Religious Endowments] closed the Imam Hussein shrine for a three-day period surrounding the October observation of Ashura, described Shi’a practice as “falsehoods” with “no relation to Islam.” In connection with the closure, undersecretary Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Razek described Shi’a practices as hocuspocus, [such as] slapping their faces and chests, weeping, and other acts that contradict the religion,” the report read.
Meanwhile, the report mentions crackdown and incitement against the Jewish community, citing examples of discriminatory comments made by Egyptian TV hosts.
Another aspect which concerns religious freedoms cited in the report were cases of denigrating religions, in which citizens find themselves arrested and charged with insulting religion for expressing opinions. This has happened several times to intellectuals, as they were vaguely charged with blasphemy, under the penal code article which criminalises the contempt of religion.
The US report also criticised extremist social behaviour towards religious tolerance, condemning the violence committed by citizens against their fellow citizens from different religions.
The US report took note of Al-Sisi’s actions regarding the issues, claiming the enthusiasm of Christian leaders. The report mentioned Al-Sisi’s “calls for imams and scholars to promote tolerant Islamic teachings, a visit to the main Coptic Orthodox cathedral on Christmas Eve, and initiatives following the beheading of 20 Egyptian Copts in Libya by an affiliate of the Islamic State.”