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Fresh worries for religious minorities

Salafist Muslim protestors in Egypt Amr Emam/IRIN
Salafist Muslim protestors in Egypt (Dec 2012)
Almost two years ago, Joseph Ibrahim, a 48-year-old father-of-two and a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, was in the frontline of the opposition to Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak.

Millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to Mubarak’s three decades of authoritarian rule.

“I joined the revolution because I wanted a change,” Ibrahim, a civil servant, told IRIN. “I wanted both Muslims and Christians to live well and be treated equally in this country.”

Ibrahim hoped the revolution he and fellow Egyptians had launched against what he describes as “Mubarak’s despotic rule” would usher in more rights for this country’s more than eight million Coptic Christians (about 10 percent of the 83 million population). But he says that has not happened.

So, when Egyptians took to the streets once more to protest against a decree Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi issued on 22 November to exempt his decisions from judicial oversight and a proposed new constitution, Ibrahim was also in the crowd.

But this time, he was out to demonstrate his frustration with what he calls “unchanging realities for this country’s minorities… I cannot say things have not changed at all after the revolution,” Ibrahim said. “They did. But for the worse.”

Egyptian voters are due to decide this month on the proposed draft constitution, with the opposition calling for a no vote.

Religious intolerance

Members of Egypt’s religious minorities say the change of regime has benefited some groups, particularly Islamists, but that this has led to an upsurge in religious intolerance and a reduction in religious freedoms, for Christians, Bahais, and even Shiites.

The US government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom report for 2012 says serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavoured Muslims, are widespread in Egypt.

The report says law enforcement and the courts fostered a climate of impunity in the face of repeated attacks against Coptic Christians and their churches.

“Rather than defending these minorities, military and security forces turned their guns on them, using live ammunition against Coptic Christians and other demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds,” the report says. “Authorities continued to prosecute and sentence citizens charged with blasphemy and allowed official media to incite violence against religious minority members, while failing to protect them or to convict responsible parties.”

This week a Coptic blogger Alber Seber was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion after being found guilt of promoting an anti-Islam film on Facebook.

Smaller religious groupings find themselves even more marginalized.

“We have no rights to speak of, not even after Mubarak’s overthrow,” said Basma Gamal Moussa, a professor of oral surgery who follows the Bahai faith. “Everything is closed: the courts are closed to people like me. The government does not consider Bahais to be existent.”

Moussa says about 4,000 Bahais live in Egypt, but that the government does not allow them to have ID cards; the few who have them are required to declare themselves on the card as either Muslim or Christian.

Worse still, unlike the children of other Egyptian citizens, the children of Bahais have no access to Egypt’s free education system, because the Ministry of Education recognizes only the three Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, according to Education Minister Ibrahim Ghonem on 30 November (Arabic).

Shiite woes

The conditions of Egypt’s Shiites are no better, according to leading Shiite activist Mohamed Al Derini, who says that although Mubarak used to give Shiites a hard time, they were still able to find ways to practice their rituals.

There are no official statistics on the number of Shias in Egypt and estimates range from fifty thousand to two million.

“Now, things are worse,” he said. “I am not speaking about political representation, which is non-existent after the revolution, but about the right to practise your own religion in peace, which is also becoming impossible after Mubarak’s departure.”

Al Derini and hundreds of fellow Shiites had to call off a religious celebration recently, he said, when the authorities tried to prevent the celebration taking place.

One such recent example is the case of Alber Saber Ayad, an activist from the 2011 uprising against Mubarak who is charged with defamation of religion.

Ayad’s lawyer told Amnesty International that he was concerned by the attitude of a “religious judge who cannot separate his personal views from the legal safeguards for defendants.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme, says many other people are being prosecuted for blasphemy.

“These cases set a dangerous precedent for the Egyptian authorities' tolerance of freedom of expression in the country," Sahraoui said.

Perhaps this is the reason why the US Commission on International Religious Freedom designates Egypt as a “country of particular concern” for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.

No opposition

But it is not just religious minority groups in Egypt that are now worried.

Campaigners say these changes are symptomatic of a wider intolerance towards religious and political difference on all Egyptians.

A man in his early twenties lost his life in July (Arabic) in the coastal city of Suez at the hands of a group of bearded men for simply sitting beside his fiancée in a public park.

When interrogated by the authorities, the man’s fiancée said three men - two of them bearded - approached her and her fiancé and kept asking questions about their relationship.

“My son did nothing wrong to be killed,” Hussein Eid, the victim’s father, said. “Suppose he did anything wrong, should he be punished by being killed?”

Until almost two years ago, Egyptian writer Abdel Gelil Al Sharnoubi’s worst fear was imprisonment. Now, he worries about being killed.

“This is the difference between Egypt before and after the revolution,” Al Sharnoubi, 38, told IRIN. “Before the overthrow of the dictator [former president Hosni Mubarak], one could easily go to jail for speaking against people in power, but now one can be killed for expressing a different point of view.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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