Religious Rights Report

Egypt Joins List of Concern

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MAY 8, 2011 ( The latest report card on religious freedom shows little ground for satisfaction. In the brief space between the Easter celebrations and John Paul II’s beatification, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published its 2011 annual report on April 28.

Though overshadowed by the more momentous news of past days, the report added Egypt to the list of countries that it recommends the Secretary of State name as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs).

These CPCs are countries that stand out for the systematic and serious nature of the violation of religions freedom. The other nations on the CPC list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.  

“In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities,” said USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo. 

This violence has continued since President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, he added.

For years, the report stated, the Egyptian government permitted widespread discrimination against religious minorities. Those affected were not only the Copts but also Baha‘is and dissident Muslims. As well, the state-controlled media regularly published material vilifying Jews.

The discrimination against Copts is evident when looking at the ruling elites, the report noted. In the armed forces there are very few Christians in the upper ranks.

There is only one Christian governor out of 28, and just one elected member of parliament out of a total 454 seats. There are no known Copt university presidents or deans, and very few judges.

The worst

In the section of the report dealing with the worst violations committed by the CPCs, Burma’s government was singled out as one of the “world’s worst human rights violators.” 

Authorities monitor all religious organizations and use violence against religious leaders and communities, particularly in ethnic minority areas, according to USCIRF.

Those affected range from Buddhist monks to Muslims, ethnic minorities and Protestant house churches.

Meanwhile the report accused China of severely restricting the activities of unregistered religious groups or those groups authorities consider to be a threat to national security. 

In particular, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims are tightly controlled with the government controlling the selection of clergy, banning religious gatherings and restricting the distribution of religious literature, among other measures.

USCIRF put at over 500 the number of unregistered Protestants who were detained by authorities in the past year.

Catholics are also in the firing line, with dozens of clergy continuing to be in detention or in home confinement. The report cited information from the Congressional Executive Committee on China, which estimates at least 40 Catholic bishops remain imprisoned or detained by authorities, or who have disappeared.

The report commented that government efforts to exert control over the Catholic Church intensified in the past year. One measure was the ordination of a bishop without Vatican approval and the election of bishops not approved by Rome to leadership positions in the government approved Patriotic Church. 

Beijing also continues to prohibit Catholic clergy from communicating with the Vatican, the report added.

Middle East

Many nations in the Middle East are on the CPC list. Iran, for example, continues to violate freedom of belief. The report accused the government of using extreme measures, such as torture and executions.

During the past year the report said that religious freedom conditions deteriorated further, especially for religious minorities such as Baha‘is, Christians and Sufi Muslims. Jews also suffered, with an intensified atmosphere of anti-Semitism and repeated denials of the Holocaust.

The report said that in the past year arrests and harassment of Sufi Muslims increased significantly. This has reached the point where if the religion of a Sufi Muslim student becomes known while they are at university then they are generally expelled.

Christians face the disruption of religious services and the harassment of church leaders, according to USCIRF. Since June last year more than 250 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested, the report stated.

In neighboring Iraq, religious minorities continue to be victims of violence and intimidation, with little effective protection from the government, the report stated.

The end of 2010 saw a surge in attacks against Christians in Iraq, leading to a new wave of Christian refugees.

Half or more of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to have left the country, the report estimated. In 2003, there were thought to be 800,000 to 1.4 million members of the various Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Currently the estimated number of Christians is around 500,000.

Saudi Arabia has also seen a continued situation of systematic violations of religious freedom during the past year, according to USCIRF.

All forms of public religious expression other than that approved by the government’s interpretation of Sunni Islam is banned. No non-Muslim places of worship are allowed in the country.

The report explained that the Saudi government uses criminal charges of apostasy and blasphemy to suppress discussion and debate and to silence dissidents. Accusations of sorcery and witchcraft are also used against Muslims who do not follow the official interpretation of Islam.

The report also noted that school text books continue to advocate intolerance and violence.


Turning to Sudan the report did claim a victory with the success of the public referendum held last January that gave the go-ahead to the independence of southern Sudan. This means that the southern population, made up mainly of Christians and animists, will be able to free itself from the attempts by the northern government to impose Islam on the whole country.

The Khartoum government has tried to impose sharia law on the whole of Sudan and has made conversion from Islam a criminal offense. Non-Muslims are not allowed to publicly express their faith and face difficulty in getting permission to build churches. By contrast, the authorities subsidize the construction of mosques.

Another African country of concern is Nigeria. According to the report, since 1999 around 13,000 Nigerians have been killed in religiously-related violence between Muslims and Christians. 

In addition a number of northern states have included sharia law in their criminal codes.

Even before the introduction of sharia, Christians in the northern Nigerian states complained about discrimination by the Muslim state governments.

Applications to build or repair churches are denied. There is a lack of access to education, and no provision for the teaching of the Christian religion in public schools. There are no Christian religious programs in state-run media, and few opportunities for jobs in government bodies.

Pakistan didn’t escape the report’s attention, particularly after the high profile assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs and an advocate of religious freedom, and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who although a Muslim, was critical of the country’s blasphemy laws.

These laws, the report explained, combined with other legislation “have created an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism.”

Religiously motivated violence is chronic, the report said, with auth
orities failing to protect minorities and then not bringing the offenders to justice.

The CPCs are not the only countries covered by the report. USCIRF also has a Watch List, which are countries with notable violations of religious freedom. These included Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela. 

“Religious freedom promotion needs to be a central aspect of U.S. foreign policy strategic planning,” the report urged. A recommendation that other countries would do well to follow.

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