CIHRS Written Statement before HRC 10th Session About Situation of Freedom of Religion and Belief

In United Nations Human Rights Council by

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Contact: Jeremie Smith, Director Geneva Office
Phone Number: (+202) 27945341 / 27951112
E-mail: [email protected] 

Tenth session

Written Statement submitted by The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), a non-governmental organization in special consultative status

The Situation of Freedom of Religion and Belief in Egypt

1. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and its partners remain seriously concerned about the continuing violations of freedom of religion and belief in Egypt. The situation of religious freedoms in the country has deteriorated further in 2008, with the persistent failure of the Egyptian Government to repeal discriminatory laws and policies, end abusive practices, establish accountability for acts of sectarian violence and remove limitations on the freedom of religion or belief, including the right to change one&#146s religion.

Situation of the Baha&#146i Community 

2. The Egyptian Government continued to deny Baha&#146i Egyptians the right to obtain mandatory identification documents, such as identity cards and birth certificates, unless they misidentified themselves as followers of one of the three “recognized” religions of Islam, Christianity or Judaism. This policy was instated at least eight years ago and led to severe difficulties faced by the Baha&#146i community in accessing any public services in Egypt. Official identification documents are essential to obtain education and employment, register births, immunize children, and conduct basic transactions such as opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, or collecting a pension.

3. In January 2008, the Cairo Court of Administrative Justice granted the request of Baha’i Egyptians to obtain birth certificates and identity cards without indicating any religious affiliation. Almost one year later, however, the Ministry of Interior has failed to implement this court decision and Baha&#146i citizens continue to suffer the consequences of this arbitrary and discriminatory policy.

Prosecutions for “Contempt of Heavenly Religions”

4. Contempt of religions is criminalized under the Egyptian Penal Code (Law no. 58 of 1937). Article 98 (f) of the Penal Code, as amended in 2006, stipulates the following:
“Whoever exploits religion in order to promote extremist ideologies by word of mouth, in writing or in any other manner, with a view to stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity shall be punished with imprisonment between six months and five years or paying a fine of at least 500 Egyptian pounds.”
5. In 2008 the Egyptian government continued to use the vague and imprecise Penal Code provision on “contempt of religions” to detain and prosecute individuals solely on the basis of their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of religion and belief and to freedom of opinion and expression.

6. For instance, in October 2008, security forces raided the house of Reda Abdel-Rahman in the governorate of Sharqiya and detained him on the grounds of his Qur&#146ani beliefs and writings on his blog, entitled “Justice Freedom Peace”. Qur&#146anis are sunni Muslims who believe the Qur&#146an to be the sole source of Islamic jurisprudence. Abdel-Rahman spent 88 days in administrative detention under the Emergency Law. He appeared twice before the Supreme State Security Prosecution Office, where he was interrogated about his beliefs on religious matters, such as his views on the validity of the Sunna (Prophet Mohammad&#146s legacy) and the way he performed prayers. Prosecutors charged the blogger with “contempt of the Muslim faith” and the charge has not been dropped despite his release.

7. In a similar case, Hani Nazir Aziz, a Coptic Christian blogger and social worker at a school, turned himself in to the police at the Abu Tisht station in the Qena governorate on 3 October 2008 after he learned that the police were looking for him in connection with rumors spreading in his village that he had published material insulting to Islam on his blog. Despite the fact that a release order has been issued for the blogger&#146s release in late November 2008, he remained in administrative detention under the Emergency Law at the time of this submission.

8. In December 2007, between 22 and 25 people were arrested, among them four Lebanese nationals and one Kazakh national, on charges of belonging to the Ahbash sect, considered by some Muslim scholars to be a heretic sect of Islam. The detainees were charged with “contempt of Islam” and membership in an illegal organization. Quoting a judicial source, Reuters reported that the detainees were questioned on charges of disseminating ideas such as the permissibility of Muslims praying without prior ablutions and receiving blessings from graves and the dead. The men were released in February 2008 but the charges against them have not been dropped.

Inadequate Response to Sectarian Violence

9. Throughout 2008, the State has failed to respond adequately to incidents of Muslim-Christian sectarian violence, event when these incidents led to the loss of life. In addition to ignoring the root causes of such violence, the State has failed to establish justice for the victims of sectarian attacks or end the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators.

10. For instance, on 31 May 2008, at approximately 5 pm, monks at the Abu Fana Monastery, located 270 km south of Cairo near the city of Mallawi in the Minya province, came under armed attack by some 60 Bedouin living in Qasr Hur, a village adjacent to the monastery. Shots were fired at the monastery for at least four hours, after which security forces arrived to stop the assault. The clash grew out of a dispute that began several years ago between the monks at the ancient monastery, who have launched a land reclamation effort around the monastery, and Muslim Bedouins living in the adjacent village, who consider the land theirs by right of occupancy; the lands in question are state owned. Information gathered by human rights investigators indicates that the assault resulted in the destruction of a small church built on the monastery’s farm and its entire contents.

11. During the clashes one Muslim farmer was killed by gunshot whose source remains unrevealed, seven monks were injured, including three who were kidnapped by the Bedouin before being released a few hours later. The injured monks, who were moved to Cairo hospitals for treatment, sustained shrapnel wounds after two of them were shot. They also sustained broken bones, muscle tears, and bruises and injuries due to physical blows, whipping, dragging, and pelting with stones. Some of the injured monks who had been kidnapped by the Bedouin were physically abused and their religious beliefs were denigrated. They were forced to spit at the cross under physical duress and cite the shahada indicating their conversion to Islam (There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His messenger).

12. The Mallawi prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the murder of the Muslim farmer, as well as investigations into attempted murder, aggravated kidnapping, the possession of unlicensed weapons and ammunition, assault on a house of worship and the burning of its subsidiary buildings, and the destruction of crops. However, no suspects have been identified or referred to trial as of this submission.

13.  In another incident, on the evening of 3 October 2008, sectarian violence erupted in the village of al-Tayiba, located in the Samalut district of Minya. The violence left one Christian dead and four people injured (among them one Muslim), and homes, lands, and property were torched and vandalized. Information collected by independent human rights investigators indicates that the incident began when a fight broke out between a Muslim and Christian resident of the Christian-majority village. While Samalut judicial authorities have opened an investigation into the murder, no indictments have been issued as of this submission.

Limitations on Religious Conversion

14. Egyptian Muslims wishing to convert from Islam to Christianity or to any other religion continued to face severe administrative discrimination, despite the constitutional protection of the right to freedom of religion and the lack of any criminal provisions against conversion from Islam to another religion. State officials refuse to recognize the religious conversion of any Muslim to another religion on mandatory identity documents, although Egypt’s Civil Status Law permits persons to change or correct information in their identification documents, including religion, simply by registering the new information. Interior Ministry officials cite the Islamic law prohibition against any “repudiation” of the faith as apostasy to refuse such requests, even from Egyptians who were born Christian, converted to Islam, and want to convert back to Christianity.

15. In February 2008, Egypt&#146s Supreme Administrative Court issued a final decision allowing 12 Christian converts to Islam to “re-convert” back to Christianity by granting their request to be identified as Christians in public records. One year after this final decision, it remains unimplemented.