Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
29 March - 4 April 2001
Issue No.527
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The cold shoulder

They came and went, leaving a trail of resentment in their wake. Tarek Atia sifts through Egyptian reactions to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's controversial visit and talks to commission member Laila Al-Marayati


Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi: "We welcome you if you've come to learn tolerance from the Egyptians."
The uproar over a visit to Egypt last week by the US international religious freedom commission had more than a little to do with President Hosni Mubarak's trip to the United States this week. Ever since the US began monitoring alleged discrimination against Egypt's Copts several years ago, Mubarak's annual visits to the US have carried a lot of political and symbolic weight.

Mubarak himself, however, in an interview with Al-Ahram Chief Editor and Board Chairman Ibrahim Nafie, seemed to take the commission's visit in stride. "We're making a big deal out of nothing," he said. "All we want is for this commission to be straightforward when it reports; to present an accurate picture and not be biased." Mubarak suggested that international organisations have a tendency to fault a country for human rights violations while ignoring "severe discrimination" happening next door. "These committees sometimes seem biased against Arabs, not even glancing at what's going on in Israel," Mubarak said.

The commission, born of America's 1999 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), travels the world investigating areas deemed "trouble spots" with regard to religious freedom. Reports by the commission are then used by the president, the State Department and Congress. In Egypt, the visit by three commission members was widely viewed as meddling in internal affairs and even prominent public figures who met with the commission -- including Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi and Pope Shenouda III -- ultimately rejected their mission.

Tantawi described Egypt as the first of many countries that respect religious freedom. "We welcome you if you've come to learn about tolerance from Egyptians," Tantawi told the commission. "But we don't welcome [you] if [you] are trying to interfere in our internal affairs, or to impose an opinion on us. From the man on the street, to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the president, all Muslims and Christians reject this interference."

Opposition paper Al-Wafd called Tantawi's comments a "behavioural lesson" for the group. Other papers reported that the delegation responded to Tantawi by saying that they had indeed come to Egypt to learn, and that one of the things they had learned was that Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic church, and Tantawi, Egypt's top Islamic authority, were close personal friends. It was Pope Shenouda who told them so. He explained as much in a live interview on a popular TV programme, when he said that he had met with the delegation so they would not have to get their information from sources that may be unreliable.

The allusion, it would seem, would be to extremist Coptic expatriate groups abroad -- one of the driving forces behind the commission's visit to Egypt. To help put a stop to this transcontinental confusion, Shenouda announced that he is sending a special envoy -- Bishop Yohannes -- to meet with Copts abroad in an attempt to explain the situation of Copts in Egypt, a reality "that they do not seem to fully grasp," Shenouda said.

A Coptic Church press release provocatively titled "Take Your Hands Off Us" stated that "We don't need anyone to teach us how to co-exist. These visits distance us from our real goal of developing and fortifying our country." Mubarak was quite blunt about what he thought of that matter: "Egyptians don't like the idea of anyone thinking that they are protected by another country," he told Nafie.

Parliament also came on board with declarations of discontent, pushed forward by prominent Coptic MP for the Wafd Party Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, who accused the commission of "assaulting [Egypt's] sovereignty." Abdel-Nour declared that the government should have "closed its doors" to the meddling of the commission, which he deemed offensive and disastrous. Many columnists also joined the chorus, as did human rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim, currently facing charges of illegally receiving foreign funding -- partly as a result of his work defending Copts. On the advice of his lawyer, Ibrahim turned down an invitation to meet the delegation, instead issuing a statement lauding the government's efforts to improve the conditions for Copts. Ibrahim reiterated popular sentiment, saying that "many Egyptians are quick to note the hypocrisy and double standards in the American discourse on human rights and religious freedom, especially in light of what has been happening to the Palestinians for 50 years with the US not showing any concern or compassion."

Ibrahim, who holds both Egyptian and US citizenship, perhaps summed it up best when he concluded that "Egyptians know that they have many internal problems, but prefer to deal with them on their own, and without any external intervention."

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