By Coptic Solidarity –
Coptic Solidarity 9th Annual Conference Report
Washington, D.C., June 21-23, 2018
Egypt’s Copts: Faces of Persecution
Coptic Solidarity hosted its 9th Annual Conference on June 21-23, 2018 in Washington, DC. The theme, Egypt’s Copts: Faces of Persecution, focused on the various ways in which Copts suffer daily discrimination and persecution in Egypt and recommendations to help them achieve equality.
This year’s conference featured six Members of the U.S. Congress (MoCs), Lord David Alton of the UK House of Lords, and MP Garnett Genuis of the Canadian Parliament, in addition to 28 guest speakers of various ethnic and religious backgrounds who represent a wide array of the political spectrum and civil society organizations. The result was a robust dialogue and policy recommendations.
I. Policy Day – Capitol Hill
President’s Introductory Remarks
Coptic Solidarity President, Dr. George Gurguis, opened the event providing an historical overview of the modern wave of persecution of Egypt’s Christians, which began after the 1952 coup. For the past five decades, Copts have been subjected to incessant and worsening persecution which is traced to the early nineteen seventies with Sadat releasing the Muslim Brothers and establishing al-Gama al-Islami‘a in universities and state institutions. Religious extremism and violence against the Copts, with the government’s tacit approval continued to escalate during Mubarak’s era. The one-year rule of the Muslim Brothers witnessed, in addition to the by now regular attacks, the unprecedented attack on Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral, seat of the Coptic Patriarch under the watch of police forces who reportedly were inciting the mob. President el-Sisi finished his first four-year term and was recently re-elected for a second term. His friendly gestures towards Copts have remained just that, as his government continued its severe discriminatory treatment and failed to protect them, their churches, or their property from violence by fanatics. More importantly, attacks on the Copts have continued with a ferocity that exceeds those observed during Mubarak’s and even the Muslim Brothers’ rule. There are no indications of this escalating persecution reversing course or even levelling. The optimism that Mr. Sisi inspired initially has faded as Egypt’s government clearly lacks the political will to confront the fanatic Islamists or enforce the law. The Church has been co-opted and remains under immense pressure. It is in no position to provide moral support for the Copts in their struggle for religious freedom and equal civil rights. Egypt’s economic challenges are immense. But the real threat to Egypt’s internal stability is embodied in a culture of religious extremism and the lack of rule of law. Unless Egypt’s government sets out to change the existing culture, any economic aid will be to naught.
During the session on Forms of Persecution, panelists explained various ways in which religious minorities are persecuted including sequestration inside church structures, administrative controls, nationalism, violence, limiting education, poverty, and controlling the narrative. The experiences of the Greeks and Armenians suffering genocide under the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkish state, and the pre-Holocaust of Jews in Germany and Europe were highlighted to provide insights and recommendations to the Coptic community. All panelists agreed on the importance of confronting all forms of persecution that Copts endure and creating awareness before their situation is even more dire and results in worse outcomes such as those experienced by other communities.
During the session on International Legal definitions of persecution, Lord Alton of Liverpool, made an impassioned plea that those who live in freedom utilize this gift to speak out and advocate for religious minorities worldwide experiencing persecution and even genocide, referencing several theologians and politicians giving a tour of persecution worldwide illuminating the point. Lord Alton referenced various definitions of persecution including the Rome Statute and highlighted how little the UN has done to prioritize religious freedom and protect religious minorities. Knox Thames provided an overview of the State Department’s views and work on Egypt including highlighting a few positive points and remaining areas for improvement such as with church permits, impunity for those who attack Copts and their properties, use of blasphemy laws, and how the judiciary and security forces have failed to implement equal treatment for Egyptian citizens. Dr. Destro explained how there is no single or agreed – to legal definition of persecution. He encouraged Copts to improve messaging regarding persecution and to communicate clear policy objectives and requests that policy makers can do, as opposed to focusing just on testimonies of persecution.
Discussing international response and responsibilities towards the persecuted, Dr. Szabó, Hungary’s Ambassador to the US, described Hungary’s groundbreaking work on behalf of persecuted Christians worldwide including the establishment of the first department for protecting persecuted Christians, and Hungary’s pioneering work as a model for many other larger nations on effective support to these suffering minority groups. This new department has provided aid and support directly to displaced and suffering Christians primarily in Iraq and Syria. “We have to create a future. We have to create realistic social housing opportunities for these people. We have to create job opportunities and most importantly we have to create schools for the kids so that they can learn.” Commissioner Arriaga gave an overview of USCIRF’s views and work on Egypt including regular visits to the country. Specifically, she pointed out the failure of Egypt’s new church law stating that “it’s going at a snail’s pace” and concluded by encouraging Copts to become more engaged in advocacy and activism for their persecuted community in Egypt. Canadian MP Genuis called on the international community to hold Egypt and other Muslim majority countries to the same standards saying, “…We should not be subject to the soft bigotry of low expectations when it comes to the issue of religious liberty. Any laws prohibiting so-called apostasy, for example, and clear violations of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. And I think we need to be constructively engaging with Egypt and other countries to make these points clear…Religious freedom is not merely freedom from state sanctioned persecution, and it is not merely the ability to live out religion as a private matter. Religious liberty is about the ability to live out the fullness of your convictions and your conscience in every aspect of your life and to speak to others authentically about those convictions.”
Giving an Insider’s look at Christians and other minorities persecuted in Egypt, Dr. Hamed Abdel Samad shared his personal experience growing up as a Muslim in Egypt and witnessing the persecution of Coptic friends including violent attacks on individuals, their property, and forcible conversion. He now hosts Box of Islam, a show on You Tube in which he directly confronts underlying precepts which fuel persecution of non-Muslims. Abdel Samad also advocated reaching young people in Egypt citing the millions who have left Islam but have no voice within Egypt. He encouraged partnership between Copts, secular Muslims, and others to continue pushing for reform, even though it seems impossible, it is the only way to effect change.
Rep. Dave Trott (R-MI)
“He [Sisi] frequently says however that all Egyptians are equal. So why is it that there are no Copts in senior positions in the defense department, in the foreign ministry, in the intelligence department in the military. There are no Coptic governors and most significantly there are no Copts on the national soccer team. I think the bias and bigotry continues and we have more to do.”
Rep. Albio Sires (D- NJ)
“It is imperative that the international community also remain engaged with Egypt and urge President el-Sisi to take real action to protect the minority groups in Egypt. Religious freedom is a core tenet of democracy and should therefore be central to US foreign policy… It is crucial that Egyptians demand their institutions be inclusive of all communities…Please know that I will continue to fight for the rights of Coptic Christians not just in Egypt but around the world.”
Annual Leadership Award Recipient – Rep. French Hill (R – AR)
“It was exactly one year today that I introduced the House resolution in support of our Copts…I’ve also been successful in persuading more than one member to be openminded on this issue. I stress to our members in the House that this resolution in support of our Coptic Christians in Egypt is not an attack on President el-Sisi. I acknowledge and support our partnership and friendship with Egypt, but there can always be more done in the area of protecting religious freedom and human rights…We need your support to continue to build support across the Congress and in the administration in the US Senate for our resolution. I’ll continue to get engaged with the US government, our partners and other governments and those groups like Coptic Solidarity that continue to speak out against the plight of intolerance and fear that many Christians around the world face on a daily basis…I’m honored to champion the issue on behalf of Coptic Christians in Egypt.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D- MA)
…What I would like to add today is the need to take on the legal framework in Egypt that facilitates discrimination. A good place to start would be to overturn article 98 f of the Penal Code, the blasphemy law. People should not be prosecuted or put in prison because their beliefs deviate from the mainstream. It also seems pretty clear that the law that regulates the construction and renovation of churches, although it’s recent, already needs to be reviewed according to USCIRF’s latest report. Very few churches have been licensed under the law and even fewer have attained, obtained construction permits, whatever the intent and practice, the law is not working, and then there is the issue of impunity. Those who carry out sectarian attacks continue to go largely unpunished. The practice of customary reconciliation is not a substitute for rule of law…It’s not enough for the constitution to guarantee freedom of belief if the law institutionalizes discrimination…Prevention means putting an end to legally sanctioned discrimination. What president Sisi says is important. What he does and what he urges the problem and to do is more so. I, for one, will be focused on his actions on whether or not he takes concrete steps to change laws and practices in ways that reflect respect and tolerance for difference and to promote and protect human rights and dignity of all Egypt.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D – CA)
“ I also joined with Representative Hill, Cicilline, Trott, Maloney, and others in introducing H. RES. 673, that bill would among other things push our State Department, push Egypt to end the culture of impunity for attacks on Christians and their churches and to arrest those who are responsible. Last year I met with President Sisi and urged protection of Coptic Christians and churches, and I’ve also met with the Egyptian foreign minister, the ambassador many times. And in every one of those meetings I make it clear that America demands that the Egyptian Coptic community be protected, and that Congress is paying attention …”
Rep. Chris Smith (R – NJ)
“I’m going to just finish by saying how grateful I am to you. You help us, you know, this is a place where the squeaky wheel does get the grease. The real part of it is, is there’s so many issues that are under consideration…So it’s hard to stay focused for, you know, a house or senate, but when you come up here and you just provide us with insight and the passion you bring to it, it does inspire and it does mobilize us to fight and to pray. So, thank you.”
II. Day Two – Holiday Inn National Airport/Crystal City
Regarding our responsibility towards our family in Egypt and engaging young Copts in the Diaspora, panelists shared their backgrounds and experiences as to how they became engaged in Coptic issues. A major recommendation touched on by all speakers was to improve communication on Coptic issues so that persecution of Copts can be understood as a broader justice movement and to engage those outside the Coptic community in the cause. A key point was the need to build a global Coptic identity with many Copts in the diaspora now, and how this affords privileges and responsibilities for those in other countries to utilize their freedom to advocate. Panelists noted some major challenges such as apathy amongst Coptic youth, that they are pressured to pursue careers outside of the humanities, lack of research and even ethnic identification for Copts. Dr. Adly urged Copts to get involved saying, “I have been given much. Therefore, I am expected as a biblical principle to give as much and that’s why we should be involved in our Coptic causes and we should support each other even sometimes if we don’t agree to the messages being delivered the same way that I wanted to deliver… that someone is making an effort and someone is going beyond their normal day to day comforts to advocate for us.”
On societal deception and denial, panelists described various ways in which the Egyptian government utilizes the tools of denial and deception to ignore the governmental and societal persecution of Copts in their midst. Raymond Ibrahim described the Egyptian government narrative that Copts are part of a society, that all get along, and Egypt is one unified nation. The government and media deny any acts of persecution and consider them small aberrations in society. Dr. Herman discussed how building vibrant and robust democracies worldwide is the best way to ensure protection of religious minorities and how this involves training young people about the sufferings of others who are different to nurture empathy. Dr. Mansur discussed how Sharia is named as the primary source of legislation in Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution. Unless this is addressed, the government will continue to utilize denial and deception as Sharia justifies Muslim superiority over Copts. Mr. Miller described how el-Sisi utilizes traditional counter-intelligence efforts of denial and deception to deny persecution of Copts and has taken it to a new offensive approach in which the government views Copts as an international relations issue to advance his interests abroad and which pushes a narrative of el-Sisi as the savior of the Copts. He gave several examples of this offensive approach including passage of new church construction law that has failed to serve Copts, as well as sending a parliamentary delegation to the US after the introduction of H. RES. 673 to educate American legislators about Copts in Egypt. One of his key recommendations was that Copts need to stop accepting second class treatment and demand concessions from the government, rather than giving their political support for nothing in return.
On forms of minority persecution and marginalization, panelists described a wide array of tools utilized to persecute Copts in Egypt including services marginalization, impunity for those who attack Copts and their property, discrimination in media, discrimination in education and employment, requirement to pay jizya to not lose one’s business or home, economic discrimination, cultural and societal discrimination, and discrimination based in jealousy or patriotism. Several recommendations were made including coalition building to further the Coptic cause, better utilizing new media and technology, and utilizing the existing IRF policy tools and entities in DC for increased advocacy.
The panel on Islamic Extremism and persecution of the Copts was conducted in the Arabic language. Mr. Khalil underscored the fundamental rule played by Shari’a in justifying the subjugation of the Copts and the mindset of Islamist’s superiority over Jews and Christians. He highlighted the need to abolish denigration of religion and apostasy laws. Brother Rashid pointed how Christianity and its rich tradition and history, which produced prominent apologetics and theologians including St. Augustine was wiped out from the whole realm of North Africa under the weight of violent invasions by Islamic armies. He exposed the various ways fanatic Islamists use to deny persecution of religious minorities. Dr. Abdel -Samad addressed in detail the Shari’a underpinnings of Islam’s long history of conquests and economy based on abuse of the civilizations of the conquered nations. He underscored the need for Egypt’s citizens, including Copts, to have full citizenship rights. No ruler or dictator is the source of these rights, but citizenship rights are based on international human rights conventions and democracy. He exposed the supremacist mindset of Mr. el-Sisi when he talks about allowing Copts to exercise their religion as if it is a gift from him, not their basic human right.
Ms. Raheel Raza – President, Muslims Facing Tomorrow
Ms. Raza shared about her background as a Pakistani Muslim who now speaks out against injustice and gender inequality, particularly in Muslim majority areas. She discussed how political correctness is preventing Westerners from confronting the issues within Islam that contribute to the discrimination and persecution of minorities, especially women. Raza highlighted the large number of Coptic women and girls who are being kidnapped, forcibly converted and married to Muslims in Egypt, funded by Gulf states, Salafists, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Often, Egyptian police and government officials are complicit, and kidnappers receive pay for each kidnapped woman. Ms. Raza provided several recommendations to improve the situation of women in Egypt.
Additionally, speeches and reports were provided by Mrs. Lindsay Griffin, Director of Development & Advocacy, Coptic Solidarity; Salim Mansur, PhD – Political Science, Western University, London, Ontario; and Dr. Wafa Sultan – Author and Expert in Islamic Terrorism
Gala Dinner Keynote Speaker: Mr. Azbej Tristan – Hungary’s State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians
Dr. Azbej described how Hungary has made helping those who suffer discrimination based on their Christian identity a national policy through the creation of his role as the Secretary to help Persecuted Christians. Azbej provided details of Hungary’s programs and approach to helping Christians in the Middle East by rebuilding homes, churches, schools, and hospitals, rather than trying to relocate these indigenous Christians to new countries. He also announced the news that his department was just given approval for continuation and “will be incorporated into the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office sending a clear signal to other governments and the international organizations that this mission is of the highest importance to Hungary.” Dr. Azbej assured Coptic Solidarity and Copts of Hungary’s support of their cause and continued support to advocate equality and full religious freedom. He concluded by exhorting the audience, “So do not be afraid, be courageous to speak up for your communities. Do not let yourself be intimidated by the so-called political correctness and this false sense of compassion…call out the injustice…”