Cablegate: Egypt Reacts to 2008 Religious Freedom Report


DE RUEHEG #2135/01 2741422
R 301422Z SEP 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L CAIRO 002135



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/30/2018


Classified By: Minister-Counselor for Economic and Political Affairs William R.Stewart for Reasons 1.4(b) and (d). 1.(C) Summary: The release of the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report for Egypt (IRFR), which assessed that the GoE's respect for religious freedom declined, has elicited strong reactions in Egypt. Predictably, the GoE "rejected" the report as "interference" in domestic issues. Despite this, our primary religious freedom interlocutor with the GoE offered grudging praise for the report's accuracy and balance, while also criticizing as a "political decision" the conclusion that the GoE's respect for religious freedom declined. Government controlled media also criticized the report and its conclusion, although we've seen no specific factual criticism. The reaction from independent religious freedom observers has been generally positive. We anticipate another round of reactions when we release the Arabic language version of the report, which we expect to do in the next several weeks, as soon as the translation is completed. End summary. ------------ GoE REACTION ------------
2.(SBU) On September 23, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the GoE's formal response, which reads as follows: "The Spokesman for the Foreign Ministry stated that Egypt renews its refusal of the International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. State Department. This report contains false and confused information and allusions, and intervenes in issues that only concern Egyptian society and government, and any interference by foreign parties in matters that only concern the domestic sphere is unacceptable, outlined the Spokesman. The Spokesman added that Egypt has previously refused this report, and continues to refuse it as well as any similar attempts by any foreign party to interfere with Egyptian internal affairs." 3.(C) On September 21, we delivered the IRFR to Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights Wael Aboulmagd. Aboulmagd reacted by claiming that nothing cited in the report justified the conclusion that the GoE,s respect for religious freedom had declined. In his view, a "fair" reading of the information in the report would lead an "impartial" reader to conclude that there had been a "slight" improvement in the GoE,s respect for religious freedom. While he acknowledged that three court rulings - one affecting the rights of Egypt's Baha'i community, another affecting individuals born as Christian who converted to Islam and subsequently converted back to Christianity, and a third addressing the status of a convert from Islam to Christianity - that were cited prominently in the report contained objectionable language, Aboulmagd said that the report should have focused on the substance of the rulings, which he said were positive for the Baha'is and the reconverts, not the language used in the decisions. According to Aboulmagd, the judges involved in the cases felt compelled to use harsh language to protect themselves from societal criticism for issuing pro-minority rulings. Aboulmagd argued that in Egypt's code-based legal system, the specific language of decisions is irrelevant. He also said that it was "inconceivable" even three or four years ago that these cases would have been filed, let alone resulted in positive rulings.

4.(C) Aboulmagd said he had no specific factual criticism of the report. In fact, he praised the report for its objectivity and for excluding unverified information, something for which he said he had criticized previous reports. He said that he had been inundated with requests from journalists for reaction. He told us he was advising journalists to read the report in its entirety and to not be overly swayed by the assessment that the GoE's respect for religious freedom had declined, an assessment Aboulmagd attributed to a "political decision."

5.(SBU) According to media reports, on September 22 the quasi-governmental National Council on Human Rights (NCHR) criticized the report for attributing the assessed decline in religious freedom to the GoE. According to the NCHR's vice-president Kamal Aboulmagd (a retired Egyptian diplomat and father of Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister Wael Aboulmagd), the GoE should not bear sole responsibility for the reported decline, which instead should be attributed to Egypt's "political, psychological and cultural climate." -------------- Media Reaction -------------- 6.(SBU) The IRFR received extensive coverage in Egyptian media, both state-controlled and independent. For instance, in a front page article on September 21, the independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm reported that "according to the U.S. State Department, the Egyptian Government is backtracking on respect for religious freedom and failed to stop religious discrimination." The state-controlled Al Ahram newspaper published a similar story, also on September 21. The same day, pro-government newspaper Rose Al Yousef published a story noting the release of the report, and claiming that Egyptian "lawyers" criticized the report for failing to distinguish between governmental action and societal discrimination. On September 23, the independent newspaper Al Dustour reported that human rights activists generally applauded the report's accuracy but complained that the involvement of the U.S. Government damaged its credibility. 7.(SBU) In subsequent days, editorial writers weighed in. Al Ahram, in an unsigned editorial, claimed the report was used as a "political tool" and said that it is not only Muslims who complain about Christian missionary work, but the Coptic Church as well. Rose Al Yousef accused the State Department of failing to understand religious issues in Egypt and of "meddling" in other countries' affairs. Pro-government Al Gomhoriya dismissed the report as "a pressure tool that the U.S. uses against countries with which it has disagreements." --------------- Other Reactions ---------------

8.(C) Local activists generally praised the report. Hossam Baghat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an organization that provides legal representation to minority groups facing discrimination, including the Baha'is, told us that he found the report factually accurate and agreed with the overall assessment. The EIPR also commended the report for not simply reciting facts, but also drawing conclusions. Ahmed Samih of the Al Andalus Institute for Tolerance, which, among other activities, monitors the local media for discriminatory rhetoric, also praised the report and noted the intense media interest. 9.(C) Yousef Sidhom, publisher of the independent Coptic newspaper Al Watani and a frequent commentator on religious freedom issues, also praised the report for its factual accuracy and balance. He was, however, less enthusiastic about the conclusion that the GoE's respect for religious freedom declined. Instead, he told us that the court verdicts could be seen as positive steps, despite the negative elements of the rulings documented in the report. In his view, the religious freedom environment in Egypt is slowly, but steadily, improving. He said that it was only recently that religious minorities would even consider pursuing their rights through legal action, and he sees the resultant public debate as positive. TUELLER

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