For the first time since its creation in 1968, the General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is taking place in Cairo this week, hosted by the Coptic Orthodox Church, headed by Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark.
On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi addressed the assembly, telling the heads of churches that Egypt has “a strategy of eliminating discrimination…while spreading a culture of diversity and freedom of belief.” He also said that Egypt “combats fanaticism and extremism without being tied to a specific timeframe.”
“Citizenship and equal rights are constants for the Egyptian state,” he added.
The Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. stated “human rights should be part of our strategic dialogue” with the United States and that “human rights are challenged in Egypt. Human rights are challenged in the U.S. It figures both ways,” he said during a briefing hosted by Al-Monitor at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Egypt introduced its first National Strategy for Human Rights in September 2021. The strategy has been criticized as a way for Egypt to deflect from its human rights problems, “while aiming to deceptively convey to the international community and donor states that political reform in Egypt is proceeding apace, thereby entrenching the tragic state of affairs and deflecting international criticism,” according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, an independent NGO which aims to promote respect for the principles of human rights and democracy.
Religious freedom is still lacking in Egypt, despite Sisi’s speech to the MECC General Assembly leaders. According to World Watch List 2022, Egypt placed No. 20 on the Open Doors list of 50 countries considered to be the most difficult to profess and practice the Christian faith.
Open Doors is a not-for-profit, non-denominational organization dedicated to helping all Christians facing persecution for their faith, regardless of where they live.
“The persecution of Christians in Egypt commonly occurs at the community level. Incidents range from Christian women being harassed while walking in a street to whole communities of Christians being forced to move out of their homes by mobs of Muslim extremists,” Open Doors reported. “Such events typically happen in Upper Egypt, where ultra-conservative Islamic Salafist movements are active in rural communities. Christians are typically treated as second-class citizens.
“While Egypt’s government speaks positively about the Christian community, the lack of serious law enforcement and the unwillingness of local authorities to protect Christians leave them vulnerable to all kinds of attacks. The dictatorial nature of the regime means Christians feel unable to speak out against these practices,” the report continued.
Open Doors also found that Christians in Egypt are not free to construct new buildings for worship.
“Churches and Christian groups face many difficulties when trying to construct new buildings. The hindrances come both from state restrictions and from communal hostility and mob violence.”
International Christian Concern (ICC), a non-government, non-partisan Christian organization located in Washington, found that Egypt’s Christians faced increased persecution during the recent Easter and Ramadan.
In just one month, Christians fell victim to at least four incidents of violence and two kidnappings in Egypt. Coptic Orthodox priest, Arsanious Wadid, was killed, a Coptic woman and her daughter were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam, a Coptic woman was slapped by a Muslim man for not wearing a head covering, a young man was shot in the chest, and another young Coptic man was shot 22 times and killed while at work. Furthermore, there had been reports of restaurants refusing to serve food to Christians before iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan.
“This has been a difficult Easter season for Egypt’s Christian population, and we are saddened by the violence against them,” said ICC President Jeff King. “Though violence during these major holidays is unfortunately commonplace, ICC continues to monitor Egypt closely to determine if the country is moving toward long-lasting violence against the Coptic minority.”
In April, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended Egypt’s placement on the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List for religious freedom.