Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 March 2001
Issue No.526
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

US commission faces closed doors

Elliot Abrams and his two colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom are due for a lonely visit to Egypt, as Omayma Abdel-Latif reports



If some good was to come out of the visit of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to Cairo this week, it is the show of unity by Egypt's Copts and Muslims in rejecting the visit. While such a stand comes as no surprise to Egyptians, it will raise eyebrows among USCIRF members, whose main mission, according to a press release issued a few days before the visit, is to "consult with government and religious officials on issues of religious freedom as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

Prominent Coptic figures have expressed frustration and resentment at the American meddling. "This is no goodwill tour or peace mission; it is outright foreign intervention in our internal affairs," Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a prominent Coptic businessman and MP for the liberal Wafd Party told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The game no longer fools anyone and those involved would be better advised to desist from tampering in Egypt's domestic affairs," he continued. Abdel-Nour's statements reflect the profound sense of aggravation which led various political and civil society forces to strongly protest the visit.

A source close to Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, conveyed the Pope's dismay, describing the visit as "a totally unacceptable act." The Pope stated that Copts were increasingly impatient with attempts to manipulate them for strictly political reasons. "It complicates the situation to have a foreign intruder in such a sensitive issue," the source told the Weekly.

Abdel-Nour submitted a request to Prime Minister Atef Ebeid for information on the motives of the visit. The request, signed by members of various political parties, including the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), protests the visit in stern language, describing it as "a flagrant intervention in the country's domestic affairs." It urges the Egyptian government not to accept any similar visits in the future.

For the past five years, Egypt's Copts -- who number 6 million according to official figures, or 10 million according to the Church -- have been the target of a US campaign which purports to protect them from "persecution" on the part of the Egyptian government and the Muslim majority. The issue became a priority for the US government after a bill authored by two Republican Congressmen, Frank Wolf and Arlen Specter, was passed by Congress in September 1998. It provided for documentation of religious persecution around the globe as well as the appointment of an ambassador at large to monitor religious freedom. A 10-person commission comprised of senators and representatives was set up to advise the White House and to recommend policies for promoting religious freedom. Last January, Cairo hosted the head of the commission. This week's visit to Cairo marks the commission's first fact-finding mission to Egypt.

The mission is led by USCIRF Chairman Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, whose views on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict could not have helped his credibility before Egyptians, of whatever religious persuasion. For example, Abrams has described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent election victory as "a tribute to Israel's democracy." He went on to parrot Israeli propaganda, declaring that "Israel is the only true democracy in a region where thuggery reigns" and that "US support for Israel is largely based on our support for democracy and human rights." Such statements, one observer commented, are unlikely to advance the cause of peace and human rights which Abrams claims to pursue during a regional tour that includes Saudi Arabia and the occupied territories.

Other members of the commission are Vice-Chairman Firuz Kazemzadeh, senior adviser for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, and commissioner Laila Al-Marayati, MD, founder and former president of the Muslim Women's League.

In a Washington press conference held a few days before the tour, Abrams spoke of what he claims to be "misinformation in the Egyptian press."

"Our hope," he stressed, "is that if people want us to get a good understanding of the situation in Egypt, the best way is to talk to us and tell us what they think." But talking to the commission members is precisely what political and civil society figures do not intend to do. A call to boycott all the commission's activities and to organise public rallies to protest the visit has gathered momentum in opposition circles. Gasser Abdel-Razeq, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, a human rights group, told the Weekly that he turned down an invitation to meet the commission "The mere fact that anyone accepts to talk to them would be tantamount to a recognition of what they are and their mission of monitoring the situation," Abdel-Razeq explained.

While not the first time American figures come to Egypt to assess the status of religious minorities, this visit has drawn unprecedented criticism. Samir Murqus, former head of the Middle East Church Council, explained that this visit represents a "qualitative shift" in the US government's approach to the religious question in Egypt. "This is the first time that Egypt receives a committee which is officially concerned with issues of religious minorities. Therefore, this is an official recognition of Egypt's status as a minority-persecuting country," Murqus said.

One observer noted that the USCIRF visit follows a vicious campaign launched by certain American political and media circles known for their ties to Israel, in cooperation with some extremist Coptic expatriates who were not satisfied with the court rulings on the Al-Kosheh incident in which 20 Copts and two Muslims died in sectarian strife in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag. The court ruling issued on 5 February 2001 by the Sohag Criminal Court convicted four out of 96 defendants. The presiding judge put the brunt of the blame on three priests for failing to stop the fight which developed into a full-fledged conflict.

Mounir Azmi, a newly-reelected member of Al-Maglis Al-Melli (Coptic Community Council) blamed extremist elements in the Coptic community in the US and Canada for this intervention. "The USCIRF's visit is a result of their vile campaign against Egypt," Azmi told the Weekly. "We have to admit that there are problems and we have nothing to hide from the USCIRF, but they should be told that their intervention is not going to make things any better for Copts," Azmi added. During the past few years, the government undertook a series of initiatives to address the concerns of Egyptian Copts, including the facilitation of church repairs, the appointment of Copts to senior positions in the ruling party and expanded treatment of Coptic themes in the media.

Today, Egypt's intellectuals seem to have a clear sense of what to do next and a new approach to the issue. Murqus and Abdel-Nour have suggested the creation of a national committee which would look into the issue of religious strife and which would have direct access to the president. "We have to move beyond the stage of issuing statements of condemnation," Abdel-Nour said. "We have to close the doors to any foreign intervention. This time, they used the Al-Kosheh rulings as a pretext to intervene. We should not give them any excuse and for that to happen we have to address our own problems through our own mechanisms."

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