It’s always something when the leaders of nations known for abusing human rights preach to others about the need to respect human rights. Take Egyptian President Sisi’s recent admonitions during his address before the United Nations. After saying, “We need to address the major shortcomings in the international community’s handling of human rights issues,” he proceeded to criticize the UN because “the Palestinian people were denied their legitimate rights to live in dignity and peace.” At the same time, he boasted of how “Egypt has a solid constitutional foundation for the protection of human rights,” adding:
Major strides have been achieved in the field of women and youth empowerment. Women hold 25% of the ministerial posts and more than 15% of seats in parliament. International youth conferences, which are held annually in Egypt in November, have also become a regular forum for the youth to communicate and raise their concerns. We are determined to continue to accord high priority to the issues of women economic empowerment, and the causes of the youth, science, technology … as a practical example of our commitment to the promotion of human rights in a comprehensive manner.
Glaringly missing from Sisi’s “comprehensive” plans is any mention of “commitment to the promotion of human rights” in the context of religious freedom and equality. The reason for this is simple: as with most Muslim countries, non-Muslim minorities are simply not accorded the same religious freedom and equality as their Muslim counterparts.
This is even enshrined in Egypt’s Constitution itself. Article 2 states, “Islam is the religion of the State … The principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.” And, as it happens, Islamic Sharia is emphatic that non-Muslims are at best to be treated as second-class citizens.
As one example, Sharia is clear that nations conquered (or “opened”) by Islam are banned from building non-Islamic houses of worship. In Egypt, which was Christian majority before Islam invaded and subjugated it in the Seventh Century (discussed in detail in Chapter 1 of Sword and Scimitar), the building of churches is virtually impossible. First Christians are confronted by various legal hurdles in their way to opening a church; these often take years if not decades to overcome. (Needless to say, such red tape does not apply to mosques, ten of which are reportedly opened per week in Egypt.)
In one detailed study, Coptic researcher Adel Guindy estimated that “there is one church per 5,800 Orthodox Copts,” thereby forcing many Christians “to travel far distances outside of their towns for religious services (baptism, marriage, funerals, and regular mass).” On the other hand, based on the number of mosques in Egypt (about 114,000) and estimated Muslim population of about 80 million, there is about one mosque for every 700 Muslims. In other words, even after taking account of the ratio between Muslims to Christians, there are still about eight mosques for every one church. The discrepancy could not be clearer.
On those few occasions where Christian tenacity overcomes the legal jihad, and a church permit is forthcoming, there’s the Muslim mob to contend with. Once local Muslims get wind that a church might be recognized in their neighborhood, they form in large mobs — typically after Friday prayers, when the imam riles them — riot, attack, and sometimes kill Christians, and torch their homes and/or church in question. Then to diffuse the situation, local authorities, some of whom aid or cover for the mob, promptly revoke the church’s pending permit on the claim that it poses a “security concern” for the village.
For example, eight churches have been closed in one Egyptian province alone, Luxor, and all of them “following attacks by Muslim villagers protesting against the church[es] being legally recognized,” to quote from an August 29 report. The most recent of those eight closures occurred on August 22, while Christians were celebrating a feast day at the Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox church.
“A great deal of Muslim young men, aged 16-26, from our village and nearby gathered in front of our church building, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and chanting hostile slogans against Copts and the Church, such as ‘We don’t want a church in our Islamic village,’” recalled Moheb, a church member. “They tried to break the front door … but we locked [it] from the inside. We immediately called the police who arrived and dispersed the demonstrators but they didn’t arrest anyone. They then closed the church building, sealed it and placed security guards with it.”
Responding to this closure, Gamil Ayed, a local Coptic lawyer, voiced typical Christian sentiment: “We haven’t heard that a mosque was closed down, or that prayer was stopped in it because it was unlicensed. Is that justice? Where is the equality? Where is the religious freedom? Where is the law? Where are the state institutions?”
Two months earlier, in June, another nearby church was shut down under identical circumstances. “There are about 4,000 Christians in our village and we have no place to worship now,” responded another local resident, Rafaat Fawzy. “The nearest church is … 15km [or nine miles] away. It is difficult to go and pray in that church, especially for the old, the sick people and kids.”
He too continued by asking the same questions on the minds of millions of Christians in Egypt: “Where are our rights? There are seven mosques in our village and Muslims can pray in any place freely, but we are prevented from practicing our religious rites in a simple place that we have been dreaming of. Is that justice? We are oppressed in our country and there are no rights for us.”
The above scenario, whereby authorities shut down a church after Muslims riot against it, has played out dozens of times in Egypt in recent months and years. Most recently, on Friday, August 31 — nine days after the aforementioned closure of the Virgin Mary church in Luxor — Muslims assaulted Christians in al-Minya because they “objected to the presence of a church in the area”; three Christians were hospitalized.
The many difficulties Egypt’s Christians encounter in the context of church worship is just one of several violations against their human rights. Whether their daughters are targeted for abduction and forced conversion and marriage, or whether they are arrested and imprisoned on the accusation that they mocked Islam, or whether they must be demonized and hated thanks to the teachings of often government-connected mosques and universities, Christians simply do not share in the same human rights that Muslims do in Egypt.
Worse, those who deny them their rights are not just “radicalized youth” or ignorant villagers, but Egyptian authorities as well. After ranking Egypt as the 17th worst nation in the world where Christians experience “very high persecution,” the World Watch List (2018) found that “officials at any level from local to national” are “strongly responsible” for the “oppression” of Egypt’s Christians. “Government officials,” the report adds, “also act as drivers of persecution through their failure to vindicate the rights of Christians and also through their discriminatory acts which violate the fundamental rights of Christians.” While authorities themselves are sometimes the persecutors — as when Muslim military men beat Christian soldiers to death on account of their faith, most recently in July 2017 — they more often function as enablers, allowing a culture of impunity to thrive.
In short, the Sisi-led Egyptian government — from local police and authorities to top departmental heads and courtroom judges — openly violates the human rights of the nation’s Christian minority, and right under his nose. From here one may understand why Dr. George Gurguis, the president of Coptic Solidarity — a Washington-based organization dedicated to providing Egypt’s Christians their full rights — says that “Sisi’s supposed concern for the human rights of Palestinians who live outside his nation, coupled with his indifference to the human rights abuses of Copts who live inside his nation and sphere of authority, is the epitome of hypocrisy and a continuation of the line of denial the Egyptian government has pursued for decades.”