CHRISTIANS in Egypt are still vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and suffer from the effects of imprecise legislation and a crackdown on the activities of NGOs, despite expressions of solidarity from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has said.
In a report published last week, Egypt: Freedom of religion and belief, CSW says that, since the revolution of January 2011, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak, “the human-rights situation in Egypt has worsened progressively” against a background of “rising terror attacks throughout the country, and economic deterioration”.
In December last year, a terrorist attack close to St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo killed 28 people and wounded around 35 others (News, 16 December). Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.
Most recently, a Coptic teacher in northern Sinai was shot dead on his way to school. That killing, at the hands of two suspected Islamists on a motorbike, followed the murder of a Christian vet and a shopkeeper, both in el-Arish, the main town in Sinai.
The CSW report says that under President Sisi “there have been some advances in freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief [FoRB]” — for Christians in particular. In 2015, President Sisi became the first serving Egyptian head of state to attend Christmas mass, and he did the same last year. On both occasions, he delivered “a unifying message of national solidarity and equality of citizenship”.
In addition to “these symbolic overtures towards the Coptic community”, the report says, “President Sisi has urged moderation and tolerance with regards to religious discourse”.
Nevertheless, CSW says, “there remain significant challenges across the country to the full enjoyment of FoRB”. The report cites a rise in the number of blasphemy cases being brought to court, and the failure of the state security services “to provide basic protection or to undertake investigations” into attacks on Christians and their property.
Legislation passed in August 2016 concerning church construction and renovation, “though welcome, enables the rejection of building applications on the grounds of numerous ambiguous prerequisites”. Then, the Civic Association Law, passed by parliament last November, “places excessive restrictions and demands on civil society, including on NGOs promoting human rights, and has been described as ‘effectively eradicating civil society’”.
Some of these reservations are echoed in the latest Foreign Office human-rights report on Egypt, which says that, although police frequently arrest alleged perpetrators after attacks on Christians, “NGOs say [that] sectarian incidents are often addressed with customary reconciliation sessions rather than through the formal justice system.”
NGOs have also been critical of the law setting out regulations for building and repairing churches, on the grounds that it treats churches differently from mosques. Civil-society groups have called for “a unified law on all places of worship”.
The dangers that Egyptian Christians face from IS do not seem likely to go away. On Sunday, the group published a video specifically threatening them. The recording also included the last words of the man that IS said had carried out the suicide attack close to St Mark’s Cathedral. Jihadists, he said, “will very soon liberate Cairo”, and free Islamists imprisoned there.
Until recently, the main focus of IS attacks had been on army positions and personnel in the Sinai region. But of late the group has expanded its reach, carrying out a range of attacks in Cairo and elsewhere.