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Egypt Approves 168 More Churches

Egypt New Churches
(via Religio Mag)

This article was published at Christianity Today on December 17.

Egyptian Christians now have an additional 168 legal church buildings.

On November 30, a cabinet committee approved the requests of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic churches to formally register facilities long functioning as centers of worship.

Prior to a new law passed in August 2016, churches faced an arduous task to secure recognition by the government. Local authorities could delay or deny paperwork, often on security grounds placating neighborhood Muslim refusal.

CT previously reported how this new law was not without controversy, but that it designed to streamline the process, allow judicial review, and transfer final approval from Egypt’s president to the local governor.

The law also established a committee to review church requests to license existing church facilities. Consisting of the prime minister, ministers of justice, housing, antiquities, and others, it officially convened in January 2017.

A total of 3,730 requests were submitted for approval, pending review of structural soundness and compliance with local regulations. The first batch of 53 church buildings was approved in February of this year.

According to the government statement, the current decree brings the total number of approvals to 508.

“I am pleased,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “The process has been slow in the beginning, but I think going forward it will be better.”

Zaki is optimistic…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

 

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Dare Egypt Amend, or Even Abolish, Its Blasphemy Law?

This article was first published by World Watch Monitor on January 8, 2016.

Egypt Parliament

Egypt’s Secular Party has called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to support legislation which cancels the blasphemy law, because, in the words of lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, it has “become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”. And, in his experience as a defence lawyer, 90% of charges are filed against Christians. The first session of Egypt’s new parliament is due to open on 10 January.

“There has been a case each month,” he said at the launch of his new book, Blasphemy in Egypt. “If I have gotten any detail wrong, let me be judged accordingly, but everything is taken from judicial rulings.”

The research confirms the Egyptian lawyer’s claim. World Watch Monitor readers might have read the cases of Gamal Abdou, Gad Younan, and Bishoy Garas, each a Christian who has been tried for insulting Islam. But Muslims who question traditional interpretations of Islam are also targeted, as seen in the recent one-year prison sentence given to Islam al-Beheiry.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), alleged blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012. Thirteen cases were recorded in 2013, and of 42 defendants during that time, 27 were convicted. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told World Watch Monitor that 17 new cases were filed in 2015.

Hamdy al-Assyouti
Egyptian lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, author of ‘Blasphemy in Egypt’

Assyouti’s book, which he believes is the first Arabic language book of its kind to be published in Egypt, details 23 cases. But in only two cases did he say the defendants expressed actual contempt for Islam. Oftentimes social media postings provided an excuse for extremists to file charges against local Christians. Then either mob pressure in court, or a judge’s own religious conservatism, resulted in a guilty verdict.

“I try to turn the judge’s focus from religion to the law,” Assyouti told World Watch Monitor, “or else he will bypass legitimate reasons to dismiss the case.”

Law 98(f) of the penal code, he said, was originally passed by parliament in 1981 following deadly riots between Muslims and Christians at al-Zawiya al-Hamra in Cairo. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to inflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity”.

But since then, he said, “it has reversed application and become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”.

Articles 64 and 65 of the constitution declare freedom of belief to be “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion to be “guaranteed”, inclusive of the right to express and publish. In their legal representation, both Assyouti and EIPR’s Ibrahim aim to convince a judge to refer a blasphemy case to the Supreme Constitutional Court.

But because of the difficulty in persuading a judge to do so, some rights advocates argue for a change in the law itself, if not its outright cancellation. In advance of the first session of Egypt’s new parliament, the Secular Party called on President Sisi to support such legislation.

Blasphemy in Egypt
‘Blasphemy in Egypt’, by Hamdi al-Assyouti

Assyouti expressed hope his book might result in the issue being tackled in parliament, but gradually: first the law should be amended to lessen the penalties, and only thereafter should cancellation be discussed. “Otherwise it will shock the population,” he said. “Even those who are not overly religious will cling to their religion during a controversy.”

But Ibrahim was cautious, wishing to focus on freedom of expression in general, with blasphemy included under the umbrella. “If we request this article be cancelled, it will result in an increase of the punishment,” he said, fearing a reversal. “No parliamentarians have the courage to raise this issue in parliament.”

Perhaps Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, nephew of the late president, will prove him wrong. Last year, during an open session in the upscale Cairo suburb of Maadi, he spoke boldly to the gathered assembly of foreigners and upper-class Egyptians.

“We are not in agreement with the blasphemy law,” said the president of the Reform and Development Party, recently elected from his district of Menoufiya in the Nile Delta. “Everyone has the right of expression, but it has to be organised. We will work on these laws in the coming parliament.”

But will he? Mahmoud Farouk, head of one of Egypt’s leading liberal lobby groups, is doubtful the new parliament will take on the challenge. His Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies advocates not only to cancel Article 98(f), but also to remove the religion marker from national ID cards.

In 2014, Farouk presented his centre’s paper on freedom of belief to most of Egypt’s leading political parties. At the time he estimated that 30 per cent of party members believe in cancelling the blasphemy law. But in a follow-up conversation with World Watch Monitor, he said he thought only five per cent of the elected parliament would be brave enough to speak on this issue.

Mahmoud Farouk
Mahmoud Farouk, head of the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies

The problem lies in his estimate of only 10 per cent of the population being in favour of such a change. To spread the message, he invited Paul Marshall, author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, to a public lecture, and promoted the Arabic version of his book online. But similar translation efforts, such as Brian Whitaker’s Arabs without God, can reach only a limited segment of Egypt’s population.

For this reason, Farouk wants to lobby directly, but quietly. Of the major political parties, he sees the Free Egyptians Party (FEP) as one of the few ideologically inclined to support changes to the blasphemy law. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, one of their leading figures, who only recently resigned, penned an article in Egypt’s largest daily calling the law a “disgrace”. But though the FEP is the largest party in parliament, with 65 seats, they are dwarfed by the non-ideological independents that make up just over half of the 596-member body.

But even among these, Farouk sees possibility. Given the current depoliticised playing field, many might not actively stand in the way of greater religious freedom if it does not cost them.

“The majority of people are not politically aware,” he said, “and if the atmosphere is right, legal reforms can be enacted without causing offense.”

Given President Sisi’s many statements about the need to reform religious discourse, rights advocates wonder if the atmosphere has ever been better. Farouk said the issue must be kept before parliamentarians in committee, urging them to take a stand, but like William Wilberforce, who won his fight against slavery in the early 1800s by slowly cobbling together a coalition, Farouk knows the challenges ahead.

“We have to find people who will work with us while keeping good relationships with the parties and their leaders,” he said.

“But to change the climate of ideas in Egypt, we need a politician who will stand and lead the charge, and right now we don’t have him.”

Until one emerges, Farouk, Ibrahim, and Assyouti labour on through each challenge. Even Blasphemy in Egypt has to fight to win a hearing, having been apparently subjected to an informal ban. Nevertheless, its back cover makes clear the stakes: Freedom of religion and belief is the first freedom, from which every other freedom emanates – speech, assembly, press, and the supreme right to life.

Please click here for my later article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.

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When Sectarian Conflict Finds a Local Solution, Copts Lose

EIPR's Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?
EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?

This article was first published at Egypt Source:

What is the value of a presidential visit to the papal cathedral for a seventy-year-old Copt driven from his village? What good are warm relations between Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros if relations remain tense between Youssef Tawfiq and his Muslim neighbors?

A new report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says this problem runs far deeper than Sisi and Tawfiq. Over the past four years, twenty-three other Copts have been forcibly displaced from their homes out of forty-five cases examined by EIPR where community justice—rather than legal procedure—has mediated sectarian clashes.

In Jordan, far from the village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo, Tawfiq’s son Ayman was alleged to have shared insulting pictures of Muhammad on his Facebook page. Upon hearing the rumor, which Ayman denies, a mob gathered and set fire to his family’s homes and fields. An overwhelmed mayor and village officials, with police present, conducted what is known as a ‘customary reconciliation session’ (CRS). Meant to subdue tensions and restore order, village elders debated a just solution.

Ayman’s father, mother, and sixteen other relatives were ordered to leave town.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit at EIPR. Report author Ishak Ibrahim was even more explicit. “If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian conflict, but it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions,” he said.

As EIPR details in its forty-five cases, rarely are individuals from the mob arrested. When they are, many times the reconciliation agreement stipulates the relinquishing of judicial procedure. All of this is contrary to the law. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. While Article 185 of the penal code allows a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

The EIPR report shows two primary controversies: The first is the free practice of religious ritual, including the building, expansion, and renovation of churches. At 31 percent, it is only slightly more frequent than clashes involving romantic relationships between a Muslim and a Christian, at 29 percent. Land and property disputes constitute 16 percent and expressing opinions on religious matters make up 8 percent, as in the case of Ayman.

At times sectarianism is at the heart of the problem; at times normal community problems escalate along sectarian lines. But among the most controversial aspects of CRS is the presence of police.

“Traditional sessions do not conflict with the law at all, they have to do with the prevention of bloody conflict,” former security director for Minya Sayyid Nour el-Din, told OnTV, defending police practice. “The security presence is to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.” But in some cases EIPR studied, the police participated in issuing decisions. In others they randomly arrested people on both sides to exert pressure to accept the CRS process.

EIPR does not condemn CRS entirely, as in non-sectarian cases it has the potential to reach a consensual opinion and avoid lengthy legal processes. For Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani which helped break the story in Kafr Darwish, reaching a fair outcome in sectarian conflict is rare. “Usually it is humiliating, as it forces the will of the stronger party upon the weaker,” he said. “When security officials let this be done under their eyes and blessing, it is a very grave mistake.”

At stake is the sovereignty of the state, he said. But perhaps it is getting better? The report said there were twenty-one cases under transitional military governance after the fall of Mubarak, at a rate of one per month. President Morsi’s year in office witnessed fifteen, at a rate of 1.25 per month. Under Mansour and Sisi, only nine cases were reported over eighteen months through the end of 2014, when the reporting concludes.

Then again, Ibrahim said there have been six cases in the first half of 2015. The problem is not going away.

After a media outcry, the governor of Beni Suef intervened and security returned Youssef Tawfiq and his family to their homes in Kafr Darwish. Sidhom believes President Sisi acted quietly behind the scenes. “I don’t consider this a happy ending as the law is still not enforced,” he said, noting that to his knowledge, none of the mob are in prison nor have any in the police force been disciplined. “You cannot live under the mercy of the president rather than the rule of the law.”

As with much else in today’s Egypt, the issue falls to Sisi. He has done much to try to change a culture—visiting the cathedral and calling for the reform of religious discourse. But will he follow through to change a reality? Will he be able?

Egyptians have respect for the strong leader. They have less respect for those who ‘talk.’ If Sisi sets the right tone—backed by holding accountable those responsible for undermining state sovereignty—others will walk in step with him and help transform the culture over the long run.

But not if he is weak. The president has shown a strong hand in asserting control over the Egyptian state—despite international criticism over violations of human rights. Similarly, if Sisi is intent on a new relationship with Egypt’s religious minority (as implied by his rhetoric and meetings with Pope Tawadros), he will have to face possible domestic and institutional criticism to assert it further by arresting aggressors and disciplining enablers.

“We put responsibility on the government,” said Ibrahim. “It is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

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Community ‘Justice’ Expels Copts from their Homes

A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, from Misr el-Balad
A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, via Misr el-Balad

My new report for World Watch Monitor, published June 17:

Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.

“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by the group – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions.”

In concept, Customary Reconciliation Sessions are community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, “wise men” of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, the Customary Reconciliation Session is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the session took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them,” a local Copt, choosing anonymity, said.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a Customary Reconciliation Sessions and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us.”

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and more than 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News, the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, which helped first report the story, is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told World Watch Monitor.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state.”

Ishak Ibrahim

 (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015
Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015

The incident was unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a Customary Reconciliation Session. But Ishak Ibrahim, lead author of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report, said the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.

“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land or other property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after penalties, often exorbitant, had been stipulated by a Customary Reconciliation Session. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

‘Relocated’

Even the “Martyrs” Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had to be “physically relocated” following protests and a subsequent Customary Reconciliation Session.

Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.

World Watch Monitor previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of Islamic State. Mideast Christian News  has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the Customary Reconciliation Session agreement continues to demand he not return home.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdulrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Abdulrahman explained that those who conduct the reconciliation sessions often view them as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly endorses the process.

And in a rare departure from Coptic restraint in criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in Customary Reconciliation Sessions. He told a Coptic satellite television channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.

General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”

Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions following sectarian incidents. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.

The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of the government.

This latter sentiment was emphasized by Amr Abdul Rahim, a former member of parliament from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.

“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” Abdul Rahim said. “(The church clergy) have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”

Though Abdul Rahim insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, his criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity.

‘Roots of the Problem’

Statistics assembled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated the use of one Customary Reconciliation Session per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the rate rose to 1.25 per month.

It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.

“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim, the report’s lead author.

Sidhom tied Customary Reconciliation Sessions to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship. Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.

But Ibrahim emphasized he is not against Customary Reconciliation Sessions in principle.

“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV. “The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”

But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians, like Muslims, avail themselves readily of a Customary Reconciliation Session, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases.

“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told World Watch Monitor. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”

Anton speaks from a long experience with Customary Reconciliation Sessions, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he said, which was an emergency situation.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that its 45 cases detail only Customary Reconciliation Session use following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.

“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”