Tuesday, November 15, 2011
[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]
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The Chair (Mr. Scott Reid (Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, CPC)):
Welcome to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
Today, November 15, 2011, marks our seventh meeting.
We are discussing the persecution of the Copt community in Egypt. Today as a witness we have Mr. Nabil Malek, president of the Canadian Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Ashraf Ramelah from Voice of the Copts is joining us from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
We’ll start with Mr. Malek, and then we will go to Ashraf Ramelah.
Mr. David Sweet (Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, CPC):
I’m sorry, I didn’t want to interrupt the witnesses.
Mr. Cotler has a motion that he’s having redrafted. He has given us a copy, but it will be substantially the same in content. I want to make sure you will assess the time allotment today based on the fact that we’ll probably need about five minutes at the end.
It’s my understanding that the NDP has a copy of this motion as well.
We’ll need about five minutes at the end, after Mr. Cotler gets the revised version to us so we can approve it. This is a critical matter that needs to be moved so we can make it public.
Let’s leave five minutes at the end. That means we’ll have to wrap up the questions at a certain time.
I’m assuming that everybody agrees with this.
Mr. Malek, I invite you to begin your presentation. We normally give our witnesses around seven minutes to make an opening presentation, and then we go to questions.
Mr. Nabil Malek (President, Canadian Egyptian Organization for Human Rights):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
The persecution of the Coptic Christians in Egypt is a complicated matter. As a matter of fact, it has historical and legal grounds. The Copts in Egypt face swelling problems, obliterating their identity, limiting their progress and welfare, and even threatening their existence. These problems include restrictions on their freedom of religion and the right to practise their religion, forced conversion to Islam, recurrence of attacks on their village communities and individuals, equality before the law, and political marginalization, discrimination in education and employment, as well as suppression of their culture. It has been noticed that under the authoritarian Egyptian regimes that have held power since 1952, the major trend for the Copts has been rejection and segregation.
I won’t be able to cover all the restrictions and the massive attacks against the Copts, but I will give a few examples. Embedding Islam in Egypt’s constitution as the state religion and the Sharia Islamic law as the main source of legislation in article 2 seems to have practically curbed if not outright negated some aspects of freedom, including freedom of religion, thought, and expression. Also, basing the state and its legal system on a particular religion seems to have negatively influenced the social environment, allowing the creation of different classes of citizenship and exasperating national discord between different faith communities and groups. It further undermines women’s rights to equality with men.
I will give some examples. While article 40 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law, and they have equal public rights and duties without discrimination on the basis of sex, etc., the Egyptian judiciary discriminates against the Christian divorcee whose spouse adopts Islam, mostly out of expediency to get a speedy divorce, by converting underage children born of the Christian couple to Islam. In addition, the children’s custody is accorded to the converted parent. In contrast, if a Muslim parent converts to Christianity or leaves Islam and adopts no other religion, he or she must be divorced by law. In this case, too, the kids are placed under the custody of the Muslim parent. This situation creates a lot of problems and ends in massive attacks when such a thing happens.
In terms of equality before the law and the freedom of religion, practices belie both the text and the spirit of the constitution as well as international human rights laws. Furthermore, forced conversion of Christian minors when one of their parents converts to Islam is not only discriminatory, it is an attack on the rights of the child and on the foundation of the Christian family. It also presents, in this context, a serious violation of the collective rights of the Coptic Christian minority.
With respect to freedom of belief and the freedom to practise religious rights, which are formally accorded by article 46, Christians are faced with a maze of official discriminatory conditions when it comes to building, repairing, or renovating their churches, and sometimes their institutions. These conditions are administrative rules issued in 1936, and they have their roots in the famous historical restrictions known as “conditions of Umar”, which date back to more than 1,000 years ago.
All this creates a culture that the masses in the street cannot but follow. That’s where the problem starts.
Of course, the conversion of non-Muslim natives to Islam has always been part of the Muslim state legal system. But today, after the revival of Islam in Egypt—which in fact began in the early years of the 20th century and has been emboldened over the past 30 years—forced conversion of members of the Coptic minority has been added to the list of violations.
One of the reports of the U.S. Human Rights Watch stated: “Pressure on Christians to convert to Islam…is sometimes accompanied by promises of jobs, promotions, wives and apartments.” Then it quotes a highly placed source in the Coptic Church as saying, “There are hundreds of these cases.”
In the same year, the London-based organization Jubilee issued another report related to this issue.
Another report, which is very important, was issued by the special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. He referred to an appeal by another rapporteur regarding information on Coptic women who had been reportedly kidnapped and sexually assaulted by known Muslim groups financed by Saudi Arabian sources. According to this report, victims were reportedly subjected to continuous threats and rape to force them to convert to Islam and live with a member of the group.
In November 2010 a report by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights documented 25 cases of these alleged forced conversions to Islam.
Regardless of the government of Egypt’s claims that no force or coercion was used in most of the cases of Coptic young women’s disappearances, conversions to Islam, and marriages to Muslim men, the facts—official and non-official persistent discrimination, persecution, and intolerance propaganda against members of the Coptic minority, coupled with the legal inequality before the law and the bias and the cover-up of such cases by the police and other institutions—do not absolve the Egyptian regime and its agents of such multiple violations of minority rights in Egypt.
Regarding inequality before the law, I can mention a recent case that happened in upper Egypt, in the city of Qina, when a Copt who was the only governor appointed by the old regime of Mubarak was replaced by another one who happened to be a Copt. The Islamists took to the streets and stopped the movement of the train from the south to north and vice-versa until this appointed governor humiliatingly resigned.
The ruling of the Supreme Council, which runs the affairs of the country today, couldn’t do anything against these groups. That doesn’t look abnormal, though, when we know that no Copt has ever been employed in the presidential administration, the state intelligence apparatus, or as a police commissioner, city mayor, public university president or dean. The Copts in Egypt are excluded from all the high-ranking positions in Egypt.
Another important area that makes a schism, a division, between the majority and the minority is the parallel education system created in 1961. It is not permitted for any Copt to join or to enrol in this system of Al-Azhar University. All letters and sciences are in the curriculum, but the Copts are not allowed to enrol.
There are 500,000 students in this system, and thousands of them come from foreign countries to study for free in Egypt, while the Copts themselves are not allowed to enrol in these institutions. These institutions accept undergraduates who have a low level of achievement. They give them a better education separately from the public institutions where the Copts can join.
The Copts have a culture that is rooted in history, in millenniums. Their language was prevented from being used for centuries, in spite of many appeals to the government to create a chair for Coptic studies in one of the many universities in Cairo. Over the years we’ve been asking for that. This is also part of the Egyptian culture. There are layers in the Egyptian culture, but the Coptic culture is excluded from the history books and the rest of the culture of the country.
I come to the recurrence of escalation. Violence has been now taking a serious turn under the military rule, where we can see that such attacks coincided with the rise of Islam in the 1980s. Also, the pattern of recurrence confirmed that the political regime’s manipulation of Islamic sentiments in the struggle against Islamists for legitimacy was a key factor. This is a very serious situation, because the Copts are in a crossfire with a regime that uses Islam to fight Muslim extremists, and the fight here is only for power. The Copts are paying the price, and it is very dangerous because it has gotten out of hand lately. And it brought the collapse of the undemocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak.
I appreciate the importance of what you’re saying. I should just notice that you’re up to 13 minutes now, and we probably need to conclude your comments for the moment. Perhaps you could provide further commentary in response to questions.
Mr. Nabil Malek:
Let’s turn now to our second witness, Mr. Ramelah, please. We would like to hear from you now, if you could.
Dr. Ashraf Ramelah – Founder and President Voice of the Copts