Cablegate: Religious Freedom Commission Visits Egypt - Sectarian Attack

DE RUEHEG #0153/01 0341503
O R 031503Z FEB 10

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 CAIRO 000153


E.O. 12958: DECL: 2020/02/03

REF: CAIRO 140; CAIRO 59; 09 CAIRO 477; 09 CAIRO 1109; 09 CAIRO 453
09 CAIRO 2229

CLASSIFIED BY: Donald Blome, Minister-Counselor for Economic and
Political Affairs, State, ECPO; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

1. (SBU) A delegation from the United States International
Religious Freedom Commission (USCIRF), consisting of three
commissioners and three staff members led by the USCIRF chairman,
visited Cairo from January 22 to 26. The delegation met with the
Minister of Islamic Endowments, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mohamed
Sayed Tantawi, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs human rights
official, the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights,
human rights activists, and representatives of minority religious
communities, Muslim and non-Muslim. The delegation, at the request
of the GoE, agreed to defer travel to Upper Egypt because of
ongoing tensions following the Naga Hamadi sectarian attack (refs
A and B.) Although the delegation made no public statements, it
attracted intense press attention, mostly critical of the USCIRF's
"interference" in Egypt's "internal affairs."

Minister of Islamic Endowments and NCHR on Naga Hamadi

2. (C) Discussions with Hamdi Zaqzouq, Minister of Islamic
Endowments (Awqaf), focused on the January 6 killings in Naga
Hamadi (refs A and B). According to Zaqzouq, the killings were a
response to the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man.
Zaqzouq asserted that such "honor crimes" occur regularly and only
receive Western media attention when both Christians and Muslims
are involved. Zaqzouq said that "all Muslim leaders" criticized
the "criminal act" and recounted how he travelled to Naga Hamadi
after the attack to offer condolences to the victims' families.

3. (C) Kamal Aboul Magd, Vice President of the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), told the delegation that it had dispatched a team of researchers to Naga Hamadi to investigate. Aboul Magd said the NCHR's researchers had completed a report which it had delivered to the GoE, but had not released publicly. Without revealing the report's contents, Aboul Magd said the NCHR's finding would make it difficult for the GoE to avoid "fully applying" the law in the Naga Hamadi case.

MFA on Naga Hamadi and Defamation

4. (C) Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights Wael Aboul Magd told the delegation that "societal violence" between Muslims and Copts is a regular occurrence, but Naga Hamadi had forced Egyptian society to focus on the problem. As a result of national "outrage," Aboul Magd believes the law will be firmly applied. Aboul Magd said he remains unsure about the motives for the killings, acknowledging that the GoE's initial assertion that the killing was in revenge for the alleged rape of a Muslim girl in November "doesn't seem to fit." He urged caution, however, in accepting "broader conspiracy theories" tying the crime to a political rivalry between Naga Hamadi's Coptic bishop and a local politician. Commenting more generally on sectarianism, Aboul Magd said that Muslim-Christian relations have traditionally been "reasonably good," but in recent years Egyptian society has become "worryingly radicalized" with each group taking on an "us verses them" mentality. He said the GoE is concerned about this trend and is working to overcome it through its focus on Egyptian citizenship - not religious affiliation - as the source of rights and duties.

5. (C) Addressing Egypt's sponsorship of the defamation of religions resolution in the United Nations, Aboul Magd said Egypt
will continue to push the resolution. According to Aboul Magd, Egypt's goal is to protect Europe's Muslim community and encourage European countries to treat "incitement of religious hatred" as a crime.

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Church Leader on Security Services Harassment

6. (C) At the Qasr al Dubara Presbyterian Church, which works with Muslim converts to Christianity, Pastor Sameh Mories told the delegation that the situation of Muslim converts to Christianity is deteriorating. Although Mories believes President Mubarak and the upper-levels of the GoE are "very supportive" of religious freedom (he noted that Mubarak approved more building permits for churches than "Sadat, Nasser and the kings combined"), he thinks Egypt's security services are becoming increasingly powerful and hostile to Muslim converts to Christianity. Mories lamented that "five years ago, converts to Christianity were persecuted by their families; now the police are turning converts over to their families." Mories said that as a church that baptizes Muslims, Qasr al Dubara is under constant police scrutiny, and he complained that three U.S. religious leaders who have had contact
with the church had recently been denied entry into Egypt by the GoE.

7. (C) At the Qasr al Dubara Church, the delegation met with
Muslim convert to Christianity XXXXXXXXXXXX, who unsuccessfully
sued the GoE to compel it to recognize his conversion (refs C and
complained of harassment and threats from his family and society
arising from his conversion. A USCIRF delegation member told
poloff that XXXXXXXXXXXX pulled him aside after the meeting to request unspecified U.S. Government assistance.

Baha'is, Jehovah Witnesses and Quranists

8. (C) The delegation met with representatives of Egypt's
Baha'i, Jehovah Witnesses and Quranists. Egyptian Baha'i
leadership said that while the GoE continues to issue
identification documents to unmarried Baha'is ( "over 120" birth
certificates and "30 to 40" national identification cards) in
compliance with a judicial decision (ref E), the GoE has not issued
documents to any married Baha'is as the GoE does not recognize
Baha'i marriage. Jehovah Witness leadership complained of a
December 2009 Administrative Court decision refusing to allow the
Jehovah Witness community to register as a legal entity. Jehovah
Witness leadership said the judge based his decision largely on
Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda's 2005 statement that the Jehovah
Witnesses are not Christians. The Jehovah Witnesses also
complained of ongoing security service surveillance and threats.
Quranist (a small heterodox Islamic group (ref F)) community
members complained of on-going GoE harassment - including travel
bans - and societal hostility, especially from the Muslim

Sheikh Tantawi on Naga Hamadi, Baha'is

9. (C) Sheikh Tantawi, the head of Al Azhar, met twice with
the delegation. He condemned the Naga Hamadi attack which he
attributed to "extremist" thinking. Tantawi said that in Al Azhar's view, there is no distinction between Muslims and Christians; all are Egyptians with the same rights and responsibilities. On Baha'is, Tantawi argued that there is a distinction, and defended labeling Baha'is "apostates" if they had left Islam. Tantwai said, however, that "apostasy" should be used only as a legal term and acknowledged the danger that "extremists" could receive the wrong message from the word.

Coptic Orthodox Church Declines to Meet with Delegation

10. (C) Pope Shenouda, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church,
declined to meet with the delegation. In public statements, Shenouda attributed his refusal to the Church's "rejection of foreign interference in Egypt's internal affairs." Separately, a Coptic Church official told poloff and the delegation that the

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church was under "intense pressure from security services" not to
meet with the USCIRF. The official also said that the Church feared it would be blamed by the GoE if it met with the delegation and the USCIRF subsequently downgraded Egypt in its annual report from a "watch list" country to a "country of particular concern."

Intense Press Interest

11. (SBU) The visit generated intense press coverage, much of it
focused on the timing in the aftermath of the Naga Hamadi attack
and highlighting Pope Shenouda's refusal to meet the delegation.
Both pro-government and opposition party press accused the USCIRF
of "interference in Egyptian internal affairs" and called the timing of the visit "suspicious." Commentaries in the pro-government press were generally negative with references to the "evil committee" visiting Egypt to prepare "charges of sectarianism." Some independent commentators were more nuanced; analysts in independent newspapers wrote that "the usual Egyptian response of none of your business is a primitive attitude," and if religious freedom "is an internal affair, then we must start immediately by reforming our internal affairs."

12. (U) The USCIRF delegation did not clear this message.

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